A film executive struggles with constant intrusive thoughts in Violet. For every action she takes, there’s a voice telling her what’s going to go wrong. But is there any truth to it?
Justine Bateman (director, writer, and producer), Mark Williams (cinematographer), Jay Friedkin (editor)
Olivia Munn, Justin Theroux, Luke Bracey (cast)
September 10, 2021 (TIFF)
At TIFF 2021, Violet was introduced with a message from writer/director Justine Bateman. She spoke of how fear leads us to action, or more often, inaction. At its core, Violet is about that gripping fear. Through a series of moments in protagonist Violet’s (Olivia Munn) life, we see how one person’s words can make one question everything in their life.
On the surface, Violet is living the life. She works in Hollywood, greenlighting films that break the box office and win awards. Violet is loved in the industry. She has a boss who believes in her. She has subordinates to take care of the donkey work. She has great friends. So why can’t Violet be happy?
She’s experienced major life-changing events and they’ve added to the chorus of negativity playing in Violet’s head. It’s easy to blame the big things—the loss of a parent, an accident that destroyed someone’s property, a bad decision in the workplace. But what we learn as we watch Violet is that the smaller things are just as much at fault. It’s the co-workers who don’t really bother with their tasks. The boss who teases her just a little too often. The family members who constantly remind her how negligent she’s because of her cool new life. All this is fuel to the voice’s fire, narrated by Justin Theroux.
What I loved about Violet was that Bateman didn’t just demonstrate what these negative thoughts sound like or what powers them. No, Violet is meant as more—it’s a blueprint to show you how to shut that voice out and find your own instincts based on logic and positivity, not fear.
And honestly, I needed to watch this film right now. The voice in Violet’s head sounded familiar to mine. Violet’s corresponding silent pleas felt like they’d been pulled from my head. I spent so much of this film telling Violet what not to do—mainly that she shouldn’t listen to the voice—that I realised I should take my own advice. Bateman set out to give viewers a practical way of overcoming their fears and she’s got a follower in me.
Stylistically, Violet uses the audio-visual medium of film very effectively to tell the story. Aside from images of Violet’s everyday life, we also hear the voice in her head that fills in the tiny gaps that appear in conversations. Oftentimes, the voice talks over someone Violet is speaking with, forcing her to concentrate that much harder to be present in the moment. Quite a few of us know that feeling.
I was really impressed by the visual cues that give us insights into Violet’s mind. The voice is purely auditory, but Violet’s inner thoughts appear as cursive writing on the screen. It makes for an immersive experience and kept me hooked throughout the duration of the film. It’s a very simple technique but it was so powerful.
There are flashes of other visuals, some of them disturbing, that intrude into Violet’s mind when she becomes overwhelmed. As a plot device, the visuals are necessary, if not welcome. But I do feel the film should have come with a strobe warning for those shots. They are very brief but occur fairly frequently, which can be triggering. Violet also employs color to portray the protagonist’s mindset. It’s another simple method to get viewers into Violet’s head and it works.
With a film like Violet where so much of the action and motivation takes place in the character’s head, you need a strong performance to carry the story. Olivia Munn is more than up to the task. When Violet is alone, Munn embodies her anguish openly. But it’s in the scenes where Violet needs to repress her fear, anxiety, and anger that Munn really shines. Munn’s Violet is painfully relatable even if her job and home seem unreachable to many viewers.
Theroux is disturbingly effective as the voice in Violet’s head. Monotone and even, the voice could be anyone’s. There are a few instances when the voice changes pitch and volume, which demonstrates the changing of the guard, at least in Violet’s head.
Bateman has been in the film and television industry for years. She’s probably still best known for her role in Family Ties, along with acting roles in Desperate Housewives and Californication. Violet is her feature film directorial debut, and I would say it’s a triumph. The film is just on the right side of experimental for me, and it’s clearly something Bateman enjoys. Her memoir, Fame, which I recently read, was similarly avant-garde and engaging.
Violet is a story and character that is relevant and relatable. Mental health is a necessary topic of discussion, even more so because of the pandemic. While we want to recognise how mental health is impacted, so many people are looking for the tools to just get through their day and be happy. Violet makes the case for fighting your fears, even if you do fall over some hurdles along the way.