SXSW 2021 Review: Justine Bateman’s “Violet” Offers a Bold Breakthrough

“We can really break the rules with this one,” says Violet (Olivia Munn) in Justine Bateman’s daring character study bearing the same name as its lead, pitching her dream project “Fox Run” to her boss Tim (Dennis Boutsikaris) at Gaines Pictures and trying her hardest to contain her excitement. She wasn’t the one to bring up “Fox Run,” a collection of poems she bought the rights to years ago in her capacity as a president of production with the intention of nursing the complex narrative to the screen only when all the right pieces fell into place, but after an assistant brings it up, Tim wants her to make her case, though both know the exercise seems futile as a commercial endeavor. It is an act of bravery that Violet obliges, all but assured of the end result, but also made to feel like an act of subservience when it becomes obvious she is only there to amuse him with her excitement, only the latest indignity that has planted an ugly voice inside her head from ever daring to believe good things will happen if she speaks up.

You can easily imagine Bateman, having a comparable track record in the entertainment business as Violet, having to jump through such hoops as she was trying to finance “Violet,” making it all the more a triumph that as Munn’s seasoned exec is made to feel silly for championing something “arty,” the longtime actress has pushed through something this uncompromising in her feature directorial debut. Taking the idea of the voice inside one’s head to a whole other level, the film is constantly crowding out the screen that Violet is in with cursive handwriting to express the contradictory thoughts that she constantly prevents herself from acting upon out of fear and pushed along by the grim voiceover of Justin Theroux to accept the outcome of least resistance at every turn. The attack on the senses is jarring at first, but come to effectively express the inhibitions Violet feels on a daily basis, picking her battles carefully in spite of the position of power she’s in.

“Violet” makes an ideal companion piece to Kitty Green’s chilling Harvey Weinstein-inspired drama “The Assistant” from last year, where its setting in the industry most familiar to the filmmaker creates the kind of specificity that is bound to resonate universally. With Violet introduced at her cubicle-free office and people swarming her desk, you’re made to think she’s a subordinate when in fact everyone around answers to her, but every move she makes and each gift delivered to her desk is subject to intense scrutiny, no more so than from herself, wondering what it looks like to others. If Violet appears to be submerged from the sheer space her thoughts take up in the frame, it is a testament to Munn’s effervescent performance, as well as Bateman’s ability to show how those choppy waters can inundate and recede, that you can feel the moments where she breaks through, with the film exploring how these ugly thoughts are cultivated from a pattern of verbal abuse and internalized misogyny. While subtlety isn’t one of “Violet”’s most obvious qualities, the small, abstract ways in which Violet’s self-confidence and instincts are shaped by the smallest seeds of doubt are vividly realized and although it clearly will take a lot for her to rid herself of the toxicity in her life, “Violet” is invigorating when countering the dangerous ideas that govern her path in the world with an exciting sensation of danger in its own right.

“Violet” does not yet have U.S. distribution.