TIFF 2020 Review: Nature is a Real Beast in Madeline Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli’s “Violation”

It is the most natural thing in the world that opens “Violation,” but one of the most disturbing as a wolf can be seen chowing down on its prey, ugly but understandable and so instinctually ingrained that if a more elegant alternative presented itself, the animal would be unlikely to change its ways. Remarkably, it’s one of the less unsettling moments in co-directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s feature debut, in which nature is exposed as warped time and again, even when there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it.

This is true of the woods where “Violation” is set, where the sunlight can become so bright it starts to change color, but it is especially so of its characters, particularly Miriam (Sims-Fewer), who has made the trek to see her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) with her own husband Caleb (Obi Abili) in tow. The visit seems pleasant enough at first, though there are hints that all isn’t well when Miriam appears more comfortable in the company of Dylan than she is with either her sibling or her spouse, both of whom seem slightly withdrawn when they’re around her. Spending time alone with Dylan certainly doesn’t endear her to them more, but she finds these days she has more in common with him, a notion which Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer turns on its head when she spends an evening with her brother-in-law where she initiates a kiss before pulling back and the next morning he forces himself on her while she sleeps.

Although the co-directors don’t treat the rape lightly, it’s what comes next in “Violation” that’s truly shocking, with the film provocatively structured to jump back and forth in time, not so much to reflect a jumbled memory of events to interrogate Miriam’s memory of traumatic events, as other filmmakers have done — on that point she’s clear, but to explain her complicated reaction that involves as much violence, if not more, to being attacked. Boasting one of the most excruciating scenes of comeuppance this side of Takaski Miike’s “Audition,” Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer don’t skimp on what an audience wants to see, but their sincere curiosity in exploring where both Miriam and Dylan’s instincts come from and how they’re intertwined is what becomes most satisfying.

Interspersed with trippy images of the outdoors that show how the most organic scenes in nature can be perverted, the thriller is laced with tantalizing clues of how prevailing toxic cultural attitudes informed Miriam and Dylan’s behavior and the ripple effect that it has on those around them. “Violation” is genuinely inventive in grappling with complex and unsavory ideas in a nonintimidating way — the presentation of the assault is unusually affecting, tightly focusing on obscured gestures that refect the confusion Miriam feels in the moment, and throughout some of the greatest tension emerges in how her view of the world clashes so radically with the way that others see things, particularly Greta, and the filmmakers are careful not to suggest anyone is completely in the right or wrong. When that uncertainty can be the scariest thing of all, “Violation” becomes positively chilling.

“Violation” will screen virtually at the Toronto Film Festival on September 17th at 6 pm at Bell Digital Cinema.

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