Written and directed by Justine Bateman.
Starring Olivia Munn, Justin Theroux, and Luke Bracey.
Violet realises that her entire life is built on fear-based decisions, and must do everything differently to become her true self.
Actor Justine Bateman makes a disarming filmmaking debut with a bold, skillfully wrought drama about the destructive power of one’s own intrusive thoughts.
Violet (Olivia Munn) is a Hollywood movie executive attempting to make her mark in an industry hardly known for providing an easy, welcoming pathway for women. Violet has to endure myriad indignities at work as she tries to get ahead, all while battling an inner-voice she dubs “The Committee” (Justin Theroux), which appears hell-bent on denying her successes both personal and professional.
It isn’t common for directorial debuts to play with cinematic form quite this openly; within moments of Bateman’s film starting, we’re subjected to a face-melting montage of traumatic images – a fox decaying into the ground and exploding cars, for two – which recur throughout as a visualisation of Violet’s panicked mind.
But the central conceit is that of the aforementioned Committee, a proxy for Violet’s own anxiety. Theroux’s silky-smooth voice interrupts and even overlaps the diegetic events to “remind” Violet that she’s fat, that men won’t like her if she’s outspoken, that she should “be nice” wherever possible, and that her biological clock is tick-tocking away, among many other things. Whenever the Committee overpowers her, the screen also slowly fades to red while a droning score rings out, signifying her defeat.
Additionally, Violet’s own internalised perspective is splashed on-screen via scrawled cursive text, at times scarcely legible enough that viewers might have to squint, as seems to be somewhat the point.
The sensory two-hander does a smart job of capturing the disparity between Violet’s internal and external narratives, where even something as seemingly simple as buying some new car tires becomes an exercise in self-flagellation.
It’s certainly an innovative way to subvert the typicality of character exposition, but this is also a lot for a debuting filmmaker to take on and to believe that the audience will accept. While these flourishes simply wouldn’t work without a character and story framework to support them, thankfully Bateman comes to the dance with plenty to say.
Violet is at its core about the basic, universal desire to live free of fear and insecurity. Accepting that your anxiety has held you back from doing great things isn’t easy, but it’s even tougher to break that cycle of behaviour and hold on to those moments of euphoric clarity.
Watching Violet begin to self-actualise as the story goes on, fighting back against the Committee’s put-downs, proves immensely satisfying, though equally trenchant is Bateman’s critique of an industry she is herself almost a four-decade veteran of. Hollywood being the miasmic cesspool that it is, Violet struggles to be taken seriously by even the younger men in her office, while the older gatekeepers will use any tool at their disposal – embarrassing stories, sexual histories – to keep her down.
Throw in the brutal end to her last romantic relationship and some not inconsiderable family drama and it certainly doesn’t add up to a subtle stew, but that’s clearly far from the intent. Intrusive self-criticism may be invisible to the outside, but it’s positively soul-crushing to its victim, and so lending it such an overt, obtrusive cinematic presence here is absolutely fitting, even if it surely won’t work for everyone.
But Bateman also refuses to sew Violet’s predicament up with a plainly tidy resolution; anyone who’s suffered with and even triumphed over anxiety or mental health issues will be aware that these things rarely disappear permanently. Life is primed to throw curveballs at any time, as Violet learns late in the film, but said late-stage development cleverly skirts the sentimental trappings you might expect.
If the film’s style threatens to take full command, Olivia Munn impressively holds her own with what is surely a career-best performance. Refusing to let the tricksy presentation do the heavy lifting, Munn gives an entirely convincing performance as a woman who has a tendency to be her own worst enemy.
In the supporting stakes, Theroux’s creamy, deceptively seductive V.O. is perfect for the villainous – and distinctly male – voice in her head, while Luke Bracey charms as her screenwriter friend Red, and cameos from Bonnie Bedelia, Colleen Camp, and Jim O’Heir provide fleeting amusement.
Pneumatic drills have more subtlety, but Justine Bateman’s fiercely confident directorial debut is a cinematically unique portrait of crippling anxiety and self-doubt, topped by Olivia Munn’s finest work to date.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.