Violet had its World Premiere at the virtual SXSW Film Festival 2021 this week. Directed and written by Justine Bateman, it stars Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey, and Justin Theroux. The film dives into the insecurities we face in everyday life, how we succumb to them or overcome them, and ultimately how they’re drilled into us by our environments.
We all have the voice in the back of our mind, to some extent. It can be a low hum or it can a loud jackhammer undercutting every decision we make. In Violet, that voice is incessant. In the film, the titular character is a film development executive who realizes that “guiding voice” inside her head has been lying to her about everything.
While the subject of mental illness is brought up more as a passing thought rather than the central topic, the way Violet, who goes by V, acts with the voice in her head reads like a compulsive disorder. Dubbed “The Committee” by V, the voice pushes her to act against what she wants to do. It compels her to fear an unforeseen outcome and act the way it wants.
For example, as she attempts to go home and take things to the next level with a man in her life, the voice tells her to stop. He’s a screenwriter and no one will see her seriously, it says. She will lose what she’s worked for it says. It takes a simple action and flies it to the extreme negative that may never happen. It does so to paralyze her. And that is how anxiety works.
Watching V struggle against the ideas being pushed towards her is a visual representation of what I experienced at the worse times with my anxiety and eating disorders. I would make a call to a loved one. They wouldn’t answer. My brain would then flash moments of death, of pain, and then it would tell me, something bad has happened. A smaller voice, a near-silent one would try to ground me in logic, but it would lose out. Learning to silence the anxiety, to silence the fear, isn’t easy. But the way Violet showcases the importance of learning it’s a lie is the first step.
I am able to map my own struggles onto V because of Munn’s vulnerable and emotional performance. But, it is really the way in which the filmmaker blends elements of noise and intrusive thoughts into every moment. There is a layering effect to nearly every shot that V is in.
First, you have the actions taking place in the foreground. V in a situation with another person. It starts off normal and then, as the audio continues in the background, The Committee comes to the front. Negating her wants and her confidence. When she is being mistreated in the office, The Committee says, “don’t be a bitch.” It pushes her to silence, but in that silence, you see words over the scene. In a handwritten script it says phrases like, “I’m fine,” and “Help me. Help me.” It maps out the part of her trying to fight back. Beyond that, we also see other forms of anxiety through sharp and unnerving clips of violence and death flashing across the screen.
The visuals here can be seen as erratic and confusing, but when you’ve been through a compulsive spiral and unable to control the intrusive thoughts, they work. But even more touching is that after she learns that The Committee is lying, the small voice that is highlighted on the screen in the script overlay slowly begins to shift. It isn’t immediate, but in tiny moments the words on the screen begin to describe V’s actions, and that means she’s learning to listen to herself. She’s starting to win. But that process is terrifying.
The words on-screen map out her fear and pain that comes in pushing back. In one moment it describes the situation like a wound, it addresses the pain, and still, in that pain, she pushes forward and speaks for herself.
Quantifying Violet is hard. Its style and visuals, while they resonate with me, will definitely confuse some viewers. But Munn’s determination and vulnerability are beautiful to see and well worth the watch. V’s growth is palpable and so is the strength it took to get there. In truth, Bateman swings for the fences, laying everything on the table. And it works.
Violet screened at the virtual 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
Quantifying Violet is hard. Its style and visuals, while they resonate with me, will definitely confuse some viewers. But Munn’s determination and vulnerability are beautiful to see and well worth the watch. V’s growth is palpable and so is the strength it took to get there.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.