Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Violet

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Violet’s titular heroine (Olivia Munn) has everything going for her: she’s an attractive and successful Hollywood executive, admired for her talent at choosing scripts and in possession of caring childhood friends, one of whom—named Red (Luke Bracey)—is letting her stay in his multimillion dollar house while Violet’s own multimillion dollar house gets a new kitchen. (Her friends, too, are attractive.) Alas, even for someone like Violet, there’s always “the committee.” “You know,” she tells her friend Lila (Erica Ash), “the voice that tells you you’re a piece of shit.” But in the hands of first-time director Justine Bateman, this voice (embodied by an offscreen Justin Theroux) isn’t just a voice: it’s a bombardment of images of death and decay, a scrawling cursive onscreen displaying Violet’s true desires, a steady crescendo in unsettling music, a red tint that overwhelms the screen at various points in time. 

It’s only through brief hints and flashbacks that we uncover the true source of Violet’s damaging conscience: her mother. Violet allowed her mother’s insults (most especially “you’re a baby,” though why that of all things is the most harmful degradation escapes me) to worm her way into her brain, and even all these years later they persist, snidely telling her to ignore her boss’s (Dennis Boutsikaris) inappropriate comments, to resist telling her friends her problems, and that dating Red would be career suicide as he’s only a lowly screenwriter, despite the fact that Red has been tailor made to be the perfect movie boyfriend; his only flaw is that he isn’t on Violet’s level professionally (apparently). 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Bateman’s own extensive experience in the industry lends a credibility to Violet’s interactions with those around her as she navigates the treacherous waters of Hollywood, where even for all the bluster with the #MeToo movement so often deals are made with sex, and so often women have to fight tooth and nail to be thought of as anything other than a hunk of meat. (And so often crew members go unappreciated, something Bateman tries to rectify by showcasing Violet’s crewmembers on camera after the credits roll.) While Bateman never directly calls attention to the gender dynamics at play, their presence can be felt nonetheless: Violet worries about being thought of as a bitch, about being too bossy, about appearing ungrateful, about her weight. It’s a very gendered approach to this issue, but never becomes overly didactic or heavy-handed, which makes it all the more effective.

The voiceover and onscreen written words, however, begin to become a bit too much as Violet goes on. The latter, in particular, begins to drift into college slam poetry night territory, and the metaphors become faux deep, self-satisfied fluff (though I’ve never been one for even good slam poetry in the best of times), but Bateman’s addition of these elements shows a unique voice and willingness to play around with the medium that many first time directors do not possess, so I’m inclined to forgive after an exasperated eye roll. Even if the stylistic choices may not always land, the choices themselves are bold and that’s worth at least some merit, though Munn gives a strong enough performance that she doesn’t even need these gimmicks.

Yet for all the doubt that racks her mind and the self-hatred that she grapples with, Violet seems to work through her issues swiftly enough. There’s no one epiphany for her, but rather a series of little victories that seem to have been won handily, and where Bateman avoided being too on-the-nose with her gender commentary, subtlety gets replaced by kitsch for Violet’s final bridge burning, everything wrapping up a little too neatly and with a little too much #girlbossery. But Violet still shows that Bateman has a strong command of her own voice, this bold but imperfect debut still has plenty going for it.

Violet Clip

Violet was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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