Justine Bateman makes her feature directorial debut with Violet, a psychological pressure cooker of a character study centered on the titular Violet (Olivia Munn). A successful film executive, Violet tolerates the disrespect of her colleagues, harassment of her boss, and abusive guilt trips of her estranged family. When she is offered kindness and support, she distrusts it, doubting the sincerity of those who seem to like and admire her, including a group of men from a rival production company who attempt to poach her from her job, and childhood friend turned screenwriter Red (Australian actor Luke Bracey who is, amazingly, still not a Hemsworth). It is stated several times that Violet is good at her job, but as we see her go about her day, it is clear she makes herself small in order to avoid confrontation, apologizing for things that are not only not her fault, but completely beyond her control, and laughing at her boss’s attempts to humiliate her.
Bateman, who also penned the script, loads Violet with anxiety-inducing cues which echo the anxiety Violet battles each day. Her inner monologue, which she calls “the committee”, is voiced with sneering perfection by Justin Theroux. That Violet hears a masculine voice tearing her down all day every day, as opposed to her own voice like Sheila in Physical, only emphasizes how much of her emotional distress is due to internalizing external factors, like the misogyny that plagues her industry. But there are also handwritten notes that appear on screen to underscore how divorced from herself Violet has become, and periodically as anxiety overwhelms Violet, the screen washes out in red. And still more emotional upheaval is shown through quick cuts to disturbing images like violent crashes and decomposing animals. The occasional cut to flashbacks of Violet riding her bicycle as a child, a universal image of freedom, are a blessed relief from the almost constant mental and emotional anguish that Violet, and by extension the audience, suffers, though the flashbacks also show the pressure put on a young Violet by her poisonous mother, undoubtedly the roots of her adult anxiety and self-esteem issues.
Is all of this overkill? Yes, unquestionably. Munn’s performance as the high-strung, unhappy, anxiety-ridden Violet is excellent and visceral, a career high for Munn. And Theroux’s voiceover is effective as an externalized force of emotional self-harm. The screen washing out in red, too, works to show how anxiety overwhelms and cuts off an individual. Your mileage may vary on the on-screen notes and intercut images of death and destruction, though. In her director’s statement played before the TIFF screener, Bateman said she wants the experience of the film to be immersive, and all of these elements do emphasize the emotions of the film. But at times it is just overwhelming, even redundant, punching buttons the performances are already hitting. But it does all compound to make Violet at times disorienting and upsetting, not unlike experiencing anxiety in real life.
Whether you read Bateman’s various gambits as flourishes or gimmicks is going to depend entirely on personal taste. I wish she had dropped just one of the extra touches, because her story is strong and she draws fine, effective performances from her cast, especially Munn. She makes her point well, no need to keep hammering it home. Overall, though, Violet is a frank portrait of feminine anxiety, a worst-case scenario showcase of where being a “good girl” can get you. Violet is successful, but she’s miserable and engaged in relentless emotional self-torture, nitpicking every decision based on how she thinks others are perceiving her. At times, Violet can be insular and some of Violet’s problems are pretty exclusive to the film industry, but her experience of an emotionally abusive and harassing boss is depressingly universal. Violet works best when it shows how toxic the mixed messaging of the world can be for women, and when Violet finally begins rejecting “the committee” and asserting herself. Much of Violet is an anxiety-riddled echo chamber, but the finale is pure catharsis.