Oh, how I wish short films were more of a common art form these days. Seeing a short film do so much in so little time is always impressive, regardless if it’s in live-action or animation. So the fact they feel like second-class citizens in modern cinema is a bit of a shame. I bring this up now because Violet is a movie I almost like, as it is effective in a few key areas. At the same time, there’s a nagging feeling that restricting it to a 20 to 30-minute runtime could have done the movie wonders.
The film follows Violet (Olivia Munn), a film development executive who juggles between getting projects off the ground and meeting more experienced executives. Those two actions alone cause her a lot of stress. However, that feeling becomes even more present when she encounters her ex for the first time in a while. As it turns out, the last time she was with him led to a massive fire accident. So for a majority of the film’s 92-minute runtime, we see all these external elements take a toll on her.
Without a doubt, the movie makes its stamp thanks to how it visualizes this tolling effect. Writer/director Justine Bateman bombards the viewer with lightning-fast editing, walls of onscreen text, and a voice that tells Violet every worst-case scenario possible. In the first five minutes, we get an onslaught of all three as Violet goes about her day at work. And within those five minutes, we get a clear sense that she is in the middle of a mental whirlwind. In fact, the onscreen text and the voice – courtesy of Justin Theroux – often say the exact opposite things!
Yet for all the playful visual storytelling it offers in the opening act, it’s not like it establishes a gradual build-up. For more than half of the movie, it uses the same formula to craft an individual scene. A person talks to Violet, text appears to reflect Violet’s thoughts, a voice emerges to reflect Violet’s pessimistic side, and the whole image goes red as she gets more stressed. Rinse and repeat. It’s clear that Bateman wants to portray the character’s inner turmoil as cyclical. However, the formula wavers so little that the story feels more episodic than it really is.
What makes this all the more frustrating is the potential it has as a character study. Briefly, Violet touches on what it feels like to be a woman in the film industry and in general. In a society filled with male-dominated spaces, it makes sense for a person like Violet to doubt the world at large. As a result, a lot of the most dynamic scenes involve her being around men. However, this aspect feels buried under the visual onslaught that Bateman really wants to achieve. It doesn’t help either that the finale feels entirely anti-climactic.
At least we have a solid lead to anchor the whole thing. In most movies, Munn has been a performer that I have tolerated but never loved. However, this is the first movie I’ve seen that beautifully demonstrates a tight grasp on her part. Under less assured hands, Violet could have been a prickly protagonist with no sense of depth. In the hands of Munn, she becomes a protagonist that is expressive, despite holding back a lot of things. There are at least five moments where Violet has no clue how to deal with a situation, and Munn projects that confusion with some truly odd glances. Quite frankly, Munn’s layered performance justifies 80% of the movie’s existence.
I’m happy that Bateman has the intelligence to use the cinematic form to convey an inner conflict. If nothing else, it’s leagues more effortful on that front than most low-to-mid budget productions. I just wish that Bateman also realized that this approach does not sustain a full-length feature. In any case, Violet is the kind of successful drama that has a myriad of asterisks to it. Whether those asterisks will ruin the experience for you, I cannot say. What I can say is that I don’t expect to revisit its plunge into an executive’s psyche any time soon. – Mark Tan
Violet’s release date has yet to be announced.