Have you ever had a voice inside your head that is tearing you down? Has it always told you what to be and do and what not to be and do? Have you listened to it? Well, I have. Hell, it’s speaking to me right now and telling me what to do with this review! And, I bet I’m not the only one. As a matter of fact, Violet Calder, the protagonist of Justine Bateman’s debut feature, Violet, is one of those people too. She’s a thirty-two-year-old film executive who realizes that the voice inside her head – her conscience or committee – has been lying to her her entire life. Consciously or unconsciously, she has been registering the worst-case scenario of whatever the voice has been telling her, be it in her professional life, her romantic life or her social life until she found herself being so far away from being herself that she started forgetting what that was.
It’s terribly overpopulated and extremely noisy in Violet’s head. Indeed, first there’s a voice that sounds like a degrading male bully that is incessantly telling her she’s worthless and only has bad things to say to her. A lot of times when it speaks, the screen progressively turns red and an earsplitting buzzing noise makes Violet’s ears ring. As if this weren’t enough, there’s another running commentary, but this one is silent and much less confident, appearing as a cursive text on the screen. Then, another layer is added in the form of her childhood memories projected like film onto arbitrary surfaces, especially the recurring one of a younger Violet riding a bike, which we, in due course, see is what represents freedom to her. This is all overwhelming, isn’t it? Not only for poor Violet, but also for us, the viewers, as we follow her on her journey of self-discovery and start doing the same kind of unpacking she is doing. This is because Justine Bateman has managed to conjure up a very personal manner for us to experience Violet’s racing mind – and our own for that matter – by way of a rather aggressive opening montage of a rapid-fire images of devastation and decay. En masse, the subliminal pictures, the pestering little voice, the writing on the screen make up a hostile presence in what seems to be – at least from the outside – a successful career as head production for a reputable production company in Hollywood. She embodies dedication, discipline and success, selecting money-making and award-winning scripts and getting asked on dates by influential studio executives, something that appears to matter an awful lot to Violet and her suffocating and abusive inner voice. We can therefore ask ourselves why Violet isn’t happy. We don’t know for sure, but her romantic life is terrible and her family is a source of tremendous torture for her. That is if we don’t count the self-sabotage that has been consuming her entire life, the mania that runs her days and the harsh deceiving internal monologue. However, it is also implied that she is unhappy because of the way she was raised and is treated by romantic partners and colleagues and the world at large with its unbearably impossible expectations. In that sense, Violet splendidly deals with the gap between how its protagonist sees herself and what the rest of the world sees. We can also ask ourselves why she hasn’t considered therapy, which is hard to believe nowadays. It isn’t until her friend Lila tells her: “maybe you’ve cast yourself in a role you don’t want to play anymore” and that she does not have her own committee in her head, that Violet realizes that her experience is not universal, but it is relatable to us, the viewers.
Moreover, Bateman sets her story in Hollywood and the critique she makes of the industry scene’s crème de la crème is not only indispensable, but also welcome even though setting her tale in Tinseltown may have been incidental. Nevertheless, her observations of the business and its different personalities remain sharp.
When one’s whole existence has been guided by erroneous perceptions and deleterious beliefs, it is therefore understandable that it becomes much easier for Violet to stand up to her estranged family than to the turmoil within. But when she finally blocks the dictatorial voice in her head and begins to listen to herself, the cathartic act of self-liberation we have been waiting for is rapid and warrants a long, uncertain recovery process that we assume happens off-screen. And, there lies the only flaw of Violet.
Bateman delicately manages to bring out superb performances from Olivia Munn and a large supporting cast. With an elegant yet incisive turn in which portraying a character whose chief concerns happen in her head, Munn is astonishingly good at convincing us of Violet’s inner struggle and to feel and root for her, which is hardly an easy task. Justin Theroux’s noteworthy turn as the demeaning voice adds another frightening scope to Violet’s conundrum. Techs are all splendid, but the rock-star here is definitely Jay Friedkin whose brilliant editing makes Violet a visceral viewing experience.
While Violet may feel like a story of delayed coming-of-age, there is most certainly profound universality to its message. With that in mind, we may see the protagonist as a role model to us with feelings of inadequacy, as a sort of mirror of our own soft spots. That is precisely what makes Violet a wonderful and devastatingly raw film.
Production: SECTION 5 (USA, 2021). Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Anders Liljeblad, Matt Lituchy, Jay Paul, Rob Rubano, Jonathan Schurgin. Producers: Justine Bateman, Larry Hummel, Matt Paul, Michael D. Jones. Line producer: Veronica Radaelli. Director: Justine Bateman. Screenplay: Justine Bateman. Cinematography: Mark Williams. Production Design: Fernanda Guerrero. Costume design: Peggy A. Schnitzer. Score: Vum. Editing: Jay Friedkin.
Cast: Olivia Munn (Violet), Luke Bracey (Red), Justin Theroux (The Voice), Dennis Boutsikaris (Tom Gaines), Erica Ash (Lila), Zachary Gordon (Bradley), Todd Stashwick (Rick), Bonnie Bedelia (Aunt Helen), Peter Jacobson (Roger Vale), Jim O’Heir (Dennis Fitcher), Simon Quarterman (Martin), Laura San Giacomo (Janice), Keith Powers (Keith)
Color – 92 min. Premiere: 18-III-2021 (SXSW Film Festival)
Still credits: TIFF.