One of the most jarring, intense films to play at TIFF 2020 and Sundance 2021 was the revenge thriller Violation. Sure to divide audiences, the same ambivalence was shared by one of /Film’s staff critic. In his mixed review, Chris Evangelista called Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s work “unflinchingly brutal” yet “muddled,” while the “pervasive feeling of dread and horror is pitch-perfect” and that “there’s much here worth fixating on.”
Whether or not you feel the film sticks its landing, it’s clear that Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli are attempting something quite ambitious with their debut feature, anchored in part by Madeleine’s intense, violent portrayal of the central character Miriam on screen. In conversation with the two directors prior to the film’s Midnight Madness premiere, we asked them about the story’s complexity, how they navigated its bleak themes with a supportive cast, and how key questions about how audience expectations and desire for empathy collide with on-screen behaviour may unsettle even the most jaded of genre fans with this unflinching work.
Violation hits theaters on March 19 and the Shudder streaming service on March 25.
The following has been edited for concision and clarity. It contains some spoilers for the film.
Please talk about the origin of the story?
Dusty Mancinelli: Madeleine and I met at the TIFF Talent Lab in 2015. We clicked and realized we had really similar creative sensibilities and started making short films together. We made three shorts: Slap Happy, Woman in Stall, and Chubby.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Violation is really about a character’s journey. For our feature we started talking about an emotional and psychological unraveling of a character, not just in a brief moment in time.
Dusty Mancinelli: The shorts culminated into Violation. They deal with power dynamics between men and women, and sexual assault. The feature is really personal to the both of us – We both have had experiences in our pasts of sexual abuse. In a way, it’s a vehicle for us to talk about these challenging topics that make people really squeamish and uncomfortable.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: And also kind of purge our own demons.
Dusty Mancinelli: Yes, doing that by using the horror genre. That hopefully allows people to empathize with this one woman’s struggle, even if they’ve not gone through that themselves. Hopefully the film can evoke this kind of visceral experience of trauma that she is coping with.
It’s very easy for us to compartmentalize films, and compare them to other things, the most obvious would be somebody like the works of Lars Von Trier, who’s explored these notions before. Did you draw on other cinematic works to get the tone right? Are connections to somebody like a Von Trier are helpful or hurtful towards what you were intending to do?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Initially we didn’t draw upon other filmmakers. When we started to write the script it was really just coming from a place of wanting to explore the idea of revenge towards somebody who you’re close to and somebody you trust. That was something we hadn’t really seen in the revenge space before, where it’s someone who the protagonist loves, not just this kind of stranger in an alleyway.
Dusty Mancinelli: In many ways, Violation is sort of an anti-revenge film. Most revenge films have this sort of cathartic moment where the audience sort of cheers on the protagonist as they successfully enact their revenge and it leads to this emotional release. For us, we were more interested in how a gruesome can really unravel and erode your morality. This film acts in a way to scare you from wanting to seek revenge. When you’re making your first feature and you’re trying to get financing and you’re pitching or whatever to a bunch of different people, it’s helpful to have comparables, As we were presenting the film, we started to recognize heavy influences.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Michael Haneke was a huge influence, particularly Caché and Funny Games in the way those films straddle genres. We’re definitely realizing that Violation is neither a drama nor a horror film as it kind of sits in between the two. We’re looking at this relationship between the two sisters in the film that is then punctuated with these moments of very shocking violence. WE were definitely were informed by Haneke when we did those scenes. Personally, as an actor, I was absolutely influenced by Charlotte Gainsbourg in Von Trier’s Antichrist. It’s one of my favourite performances of all time and she’s a huge inspiration to me.
You refer to the lead character as a protagonist. You are in part presenting her as somebody that something happened to and then she reacting in turn, making her in the sense the hero of this journey. Another, bleaker reading of this film may be that she is by far the most evil, the most corrupt, and that whatever happened to her does not come close to justifying what she does to her assailaint, her sister, or the unwitting at the party. Can you talk about that moral balance and how you had to thread that needle between somebody who’s doing just absolutely sociopathic, nightmarish things, but still finding a way to have this character be somebody you can have empathy with and a connection with as an audience?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I think that connection is the right word. I’ve always really been inspired by male antiheroes in films. The reason I wanted to be an actor and be a filmmaker were characters like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, these men who do really unspeakable things but you’re still along for the ride with them. I couldn’t think of female antiheroes who I felt the same way about. That’s something that I feel really passionately about, creating these characters who are despicable and who are awful and conflicted and almost kind of OCD in their single-mindedness of what they think is right. Miriam believes that she is a crusader for good. Whatever we then see of her as an audience, it was integral that she thinks she is the white knight in the story.
Dusty Mancinelli: At its heart the film is a character study. We want the audience to try to understand her as much as possible. Yes, this is an antihero film, but depending on the audience, and I think this is somewhat gender specific, I think men sometimes have a hard time seeing a woman do these violent acts and it’s really hard for them to rationalize or empathize with her in these moments. Whereas, we’ve spoken to a lot of women who’ve seen the film and they don’t struggle in the same way. Sure, it’s horrific what she’s doing, but they’re not so quick to label her and judge her in the same way. So we think that’s kind of interesting. We’re hopefully creating a balance where it invites conversation between both kinds of audiences, and I think one thing we deliberately tried to do was try to show some humanity in the moment where she loses all humanity. I’m thinking of the moment where we see her slit his throat and she starts to vomit. It’s meant way to show that she is not this Dexter-like character who is emotionally equipped to deal with this horrific, gruesome act.
One of the strongest moments, and a moment that requires sort of a narrative balance is obviously not only Miriam’s memory of the assault, but also her victim’s articulation of what he believed transpired. Both of them witness the same words, “don’t” and “stop”, but find completely contradictory meanings. This contradiction is then mirrored by her sexually assaulting her husband. One way the film could have been even darker or unsettling was for that notion of whether or not she had been assaulted to have been itself up for debate, yet you shoot that scene with a sense of objective POV that other scenes lack. Were there ever any edits were there ever any script suggestions where that motivating act of violence was itself ambivalent?
Dusty Mancinelli: That’s a really good question. I think it was really important to us to make it incredibly clear from Miriam’s perspective that consent was not given. The ambiguity of the film lies in Dylan’s own interpretation of the events that night and the extreme act of revenge that Miriam goes through to try and find retribution. I think the challenge with creating too much ambiguity around what happened to her would become too much of a distraction. I think we were trying very carefully in the screenplay and then also in the edit to really position it so that you understood what she was going through, what her perspective was.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: We wanted to explore this idea of trauma and of sexual assault from kind of a different vantage point. Often you see this violent attack, or this violent rape, with a woman held down and her face in the mud. We wanted to actually explore what it’s like when the other person doesn’t realize or is so swept away in this moment that it’s almost tender and loving and that that can be just as traumatic in a different way.
Dusty Mancinelli: We’re exploring how a lot of sexual assault happens with close family members and friends and those are almost more difficult to talk about and less represented in cinema.
I’m dancing around something very complicated here, because your film obviously asks these incredibly complicated questions. You are certainly coming from the perspective, and the film certainly underscores perspective, that she was assaulted. Full stop. That gives audiences a hook whereby whatever she does, she’s doing it as a reaction to that, which partially justifies her actions. Yet the film actually has some space and some moments for the contradictory reading that just as she sees herself as a knight and a needing to stand up for some sort of justice, often as a form of delusion. Dylan’s differing recounting of events in the toolshed is only credible if we don’t witness the events ourselves. Plus, we’ve seen her be deluded in her relationship with her husband, in which she herself precipitates sexual violence against her husband, which makes things all the more complicated. Do you believe that her rape provides moral justification for everything she does subsequently?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I don’t think that our intention is to give a moral justification for any of her actions. I think what we’re very interested in is looking at things from different perspectives. What’s really important about the way Dylan sees what happened is that we present him as a multidimensional character who isn’t just this villain, who loves her and is still able to do this thing that is awful, despite the fact that he loves her. I think that there’s this nuance in what happened, I think we very clearly want the audience to understand that she is sexually assaulted, but there’s so much more to it than that. Dylan is her friend and because he loves her and because of the way that he is justifying this to himself that I think is really important and is unsaid in many films.
Dusty Mancinelli: This makes it less binary and I think it challenges our understanding of how to talk about these difficult subjects.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: It’s important to reiterate that this is an anti-revenge film, Part of what he hope to do is that people watch this film and feel like revenge is not the answer. In presenting Dylan as someone who is not just this one-sided villain gives you the context to look at it and say ok, there might be a way to deal with something like this that isn’t so black and white.
How the hell did you convince people other than yourselves to do this movie?
Dusty Mancinelli: [laughs] Yeah, I think making short films for 10 years really helped. Jesse LaVercombe (Dylan) was our short film Chubby as well and plays an older brother who sexually assaults his 10 year old sister. As an actor, he’s not afraid of playing these really challenging roles. I think he’s actually quite interested because it’s so unlike who he is as a person that he gets to play these really complex, morally ambiguous characters. When we brought it to Jesse, he was super eager and passionate to play the part.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: He also asked us really great questions and that’s something that we love as directors. Obi Abili, who played my husband Caleb and Anna McGuire who played my sister Greta all challenged us and asked us really difficult questions in the pursuit of understanding their characters. It really helped us deepen the narrative and deepen the conversation.
Dusty Mancinelli: Regarding the toolshed scene that you were referring to where they had that confrontation, we spent a full day tearing that apart and workshopping it from scratch with Jesse until we were all super satisfied with what we were doing. We appreciated that it was going to be such a tight rope to walk and we had to strike a perfect balance.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: You’re the first person who’s picked up on Miriam essentially assaulting her husband and I think that was one thing we had long conversations about.
Dusty Mancinelli: Violence perpetuates violence. Transparency was really important and sharing our creative vision with the cast and crew and being really open about what we were doing and why we were trying to do it and inviting pushback. If someone felt uncomfortable or if someone questioned our intentions, we really encouraged conversation. There was a depth that the actors brought that just wasn’t in the script. It was through collaboration and workshop.
Could you talk about the challenge of shooting frankly moments of such intimate violence? That is as exposed as one can be in that circumstance – it’s obviously a creative choice, but it’s also a performance choice. Can you talk about, given your budget, given your limitations of getting a naked murder on film in the way that you did?
Dusty Mancinelli: It was really complicated for a number of reasons. We were shooting with all natural light the entire time.
Ugh. Why did you do that to yourself?
Dusty Mancinelli: [laughs] There was that complication.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: We shot for a long time. We shot for two months.
Dusty Mancinelli: That sequence – the bat to the head, the strangulation, and the dismemberment, we filmed that over six or seven days. And the bulk of it, the fight coordination, was shot over three days, and that was exceptionally challenging for a number of reasons. You have a totally nude actor, you’ve got a stunt double, things are breaking, and we had two on set medics…
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: …With Oxygen being administered.
Dusty Mancinelli: Yeah, it was a lot of choreography and planning and what allowed us to achieve. That was a lot of preparation working closely with our stunt coordinator Rodney and having such commitment from Jesse and Madeleine who were so dedicated to prepping. Adam Crosby, our cinematographer, was really another character in the scene, because the whole film was hand held and it’s shot on these really long, old lenses. We knew we wanted it to really feel like you were in the action, in the moment, so it was really finding the balance between the three of them. We’re perfectionists and we kept filming and filming until we were completely satisfied. We should mention that all of the special effects in the film really are at a level that is not in our budget and we couldn’t have done it without the support of Mindwork Productions. They’re a big special effects company that do all of the horror movies like It and Hannibal and Saw. We found this terrific artist, Tenille Shockey, who literally did a full body mould of Jesse and hand painted him, even the veins on his feet.
Uh, is that a prosthetic phallus?
Dusty Mancinelli: Yes and no. There was a moment where we knew we needed a prosthetic penis because we were actually hitting the dummy in the head with the bat, so it was, it’s like a blink of an eye, you see a dummy holding his own prosthetic penis. But the rest of the film was full frontal, it’s all real. We’ve had conversations with Jesse about should we try to do this with the prosthetic, ultimately, we were really nervous about it not looking right and knowing that it would have to be cast of Jesse anyways. Jesse was just comfortable being on camera. There’s something I think really kind of exciting about that particular sequence because as a viewer, and in that moment in the narrative, you’re kind of struck by what is actually happening with these two characters. You’re trying as an audience to piece this all together, and the full frontal nudity is so shocking and it’s so unexpected that in a way it kind of distracts the audience from being able to solve the puzzle. Finally, that moment actually does exactly what it needs to do, which is to shock you with the violence.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Even in the moment where Miriam takes his jeans off and you can see he has an erection under his underwear. To me, and to both of us, that was really important that it wasn’t just a flaccid penis and then suddenly a prosthetic erection. It needed to all feel real, because we’re all so used to sex scenes as viewers and seeing a woman undress a man, or seeing a man get undressed and he’s not hard.
Dusty Mancinelli: We’re so used to seeing women being sexualized, especially in this genre where you have this rape revenge thriller with a half-naked woman running across the screen. We were really interested in flipping that genre on its head, that trope, and instead, really confronting the audience with male nudity and doing it in a way that it empowers Miriam.
You have four central characters, three of them are naked throughout the film. The central character is the one we never see fully naked, we never truly see without her armor on. She’s a knight with her armor. Was that always a conscious decision in the script?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: We did have a scene where she and Caleb are brushing their teeth in the shower. Initially we shot in a way where you do actually see both of them naked, and then when we were editing it, we just realized that it wasn’t necessary.
Dusty Mancinelli: We kind of discovered what you just said which was that she’s, there’s something incredibly powerful about her character where you don’t really see her exposed in that way. But that was a discovery and I think that’s something that as filmmakers we’re most excited about. You go into making a film with a clear vision and an idea, but the magic in the bottle that happens unexpectedly. I think it’s like Jaws and the shark not working and how serendipitous that was. For example, the wolf burying a rabbit, that was not scripted. That was just a magical thing that was happening and I was, like, I’ve never seen this before, this is amazing and this works in the movie, let’s film it from all of these angles! I’m so excited when we didn’t plan for these things but we learned to discover it in the edit or on set.
The structure is integral to the telling. You’re teasing the audience in some ways and requiring to go back and recognize moments again like the don’t and stop. How different were your temporal machinations between script, shoot, and edit?
Dusty Mancinelli: We scrutinized the structure in the screenplay for what felt like forever.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: It was always scripted as being this back and forth between the present and the past, informing each other in the script. When we got into the edit, we actually cut a version that was completely linear, just to see what it felt like.
Dusty Mancinelli: We noticed instantly it didn’t work, and that’s because when we wrote it, we weren’t writing a linear revenge film, it was all about the post-traumatic stress and trauma someone goes through and trying to capture that disorientation for the audience as they piece together the narrative…
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: …and the triggers that bring you back to those moments and those little things.
How would you describe that linear version? Was it banal, was it straightforward, did it lose its poetry?
Dusty Mancinelli: It loses its poetry and it’s no longer about sisters.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah, that was a big takeaway for us. From the beginning, this is a movxie about two sisters, and as soon as it was linear, it was just about the revenge.
Dusty Mancinelli: When we saw it, we knew that if we knew we were going to make a linear film we would have told a different story. That was an exercise that someone asked us to do, we did it, and it was great because it did help us recognize why this non-linear structure we think works so effectively. At the end of the day, it is really about this one woman who thinks she’s trying to save her younger sister and doesn’t realize that she’s actually destroying her life, and that’s really the heart of the movie. The whole structure is bound by that.
The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film’s ending.
Everything she does, while thinking that she’s helping, is actually destroying.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: There’s something great too in talking about these male anti-heroes. Take the moment [in Breaking Bad] that everyone knows where Walter White confesses to Skyler that he really did it all for himself. There’s something in that that Miriam does too. She’s convinced herself she’s doing this for her sister, but she’s really, deep down, doing it for herself.
Dusty Mancinelli: Yeah, hopefully that moment at the very end where we see Miriam recognize the pain and destruction that she’s caused, hopefully in that moment the audience understands exactly that, that it’s too late.
[Pause] Uh, that is 100% not how I read that ending.
Dusty Mancinelli: Oh no? Okay. [laughs]
I thought she had this bemused, Mona Lisa smile on her face, and in part I saw was an evil person who got away with everything as they eat ice cream that contains the bones of their dead friend. Miriam realizes that she succeeded in the cover up, and is no longer a victim but the champion who’s saved her sister. In doing so she continues to inflict pain, if invisible, on everyone around her while convinced she’s the white knight.
Dusty Mancinelli: Oh, well, that’s brilliant. I think that the coolest shot, with the power of your own interpretation of the character is influencing the reading.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I love that too, it gives me a shiver down my spine!
Dusty Mancinelli: Definitely not what we intended, but happy. I think it’s going to be a mix.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: It’s the same with Clockwork Orange which is one of my favourite films. As a teenager me and all of my friends read that character differently. But it was great, and I remember having long debates with my closest friends about him.
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