‘Violet’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

Olivia Munn toplines Justine Bateman’s feature directorial debut, the story of a Hollywood executive’s struggle to turn off the hostile voice in her head and live a more authentic life.

In a memorable episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza decides to change his life by doing the opposite of what he usually does in his daily decision-making. That same existential experiment drives Violet, although without the intended laughs. For the title character, played by Olivia Munn, the switch isn’t as easy as it was for George. But after a lifetime of obeying “the committee” in her head, she’s increasingly aware of the disconnect between the life she leads and the life she wants.

That committee is really one guy, a dictatorial meanie voiced by Justin Theroux, as The Voice. His withering put-downs and harsh orders to Violet are woven into and around the film’s dialogue and action. A second voice also reacts to what’s going on, but it’s a silenced one, the voice of Violet’s innermost desires and questions. These thoughts appear onscreen in large handwritten text: “What’s wrong with me?”; “I want you to stay”; “Why have I been afraid to do the things I love?” The ensuing back-and-forth pits Violet’s inner enemy (what practitioners of The Tools know as Part X) against Violet’s soul.

The Bottom Line

An audacious but uneasy mix of Hollywood drama and self-help on steroids.

At particularly self-defeating moments for her protagonist, writer-director Justine Bateman injects flashing images of disaster, violence and decomposing animals. The screen might go red and the score, by Los Angeles electronic-rock trio Vum, might deepen its groan. It doesn’t take long to catch on to this multichannel narrative scheme, with its disturbing visuals and conflicting voices. But you might soon hear an additional voice — the one in your head wondering where the self-improvement earnestness leaves off and the satire begins, if at all, and just what to make of Violet herself. Is she an emblematic figure or one we’re supposed to take at face value?

She’s a 30-something production executive who’s staying with her screenwriter friend Red (Luke Bracey) in his hilltop midcentury spread while her rain-damaged kitchen is being repaired. His place is also undergoing renovation. That’s the world we’re in, the circle of high-end L.A. real estate and high-powered social circles. (The small company where Violet works is headquartered in the landmark Sowden House.) Following her inner committee’s orders, Violet puts up with the condescension and disrespect of people who technically report to her, transparent manipulator Bradley (Zachary Gordon) and the oozingly snarky Julie (Cassandra Cardenes). As with most organizations, the stink starts at the head; Violet’s boss is a first-rate louse, played by an exceptionally hissable Dennis Boutsikaris.

Her protective assistant, Keith (Keith Powers), can’t understand why she puts up with the abuse, but he doesn’t know about the voice in her head. On that front, Violet has confided in only one person, her friend Lila (Erica Ash), and their initial conversation on the matter doesn’t go very well. A production designer with a strong self-image (“My parents told me I’m great”), Lila urges Violet to think of Red as more than her geeky childhood friend. But even though he’s single, handsome, supportive, kind and emotionally available — not to mention sharing his home with her — he’s not an executive and therefore, according to Violet, not “the type of guy I should be dating.”

But still she finds herself avoiding the calls of the studio hotshot (Peter Jacobson) who would fit that bill. Something in her carefully maintained mission to ascend the ladder is coming apart at the seams. The abstract poetry-based passion project she pushed aside starts resurfacing (in Hollywood?!), even as she plows ahead with the redundantly titled game-based movie Fireflame, and endures long-distance intrusions of disdain and jealousy from her brother (Todd Stashwick) and aunt (Bonnie Bedelia) back in the Midwest.

Hollywood vet Bateman has a sure eye for the industry scene, from its transactional-sex deals with the devil to the eateries that are about being seen as much as being fed. Her observations of the biz and its various types can be sharp, and the three-minute sequence that puts 45 crewmembers onscreen after the closing credits serves as a cleansing tonic after the parade of egos during the preceding hour and a half.

She draws naturalistic performances from Munn and a large supporting cast. But the story itself finally feels lost beneath the levels of artifice rather than heightened by it. The stakes for Violet certainly matter to her, but they haven’t the dramatic heft to make them matter to us. A Hollywood denizen who has never considered therapy is a little hard to believe, but there are times when Violet’s mental health seems like a problem that calls for more than a shrink. The less said about a flashback incident involving candles, the better.

However constant and extreme Violet’s doubts and self-criticism are, certainly most of us can relate to the general experience, and to Lila’s comment to Violet that “maybe you’ve cast yourself in a role you don’t want to play anymore.” But as age-old and universal as the careerism-vs.-happiness clash at the heart of Violet is, it’s hard to relate to its central character’s bravery. The supposed big leaps that Violet takes — between one executive position and another, and into the arms of the dreamboat standing two feet away — fall short of the mark. I’m curious to see what Bateman does next. Violet, not so much.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Spotlight)
Production companies: Section 5 in association with Loose Cannon Pictures
Cast: Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey, Justin Theroux, Bonnie Bedelia, Zachary Gordon, Erica Ash, Simon Quarterman,
Rob Benedict, Dennis Boutsikaris, Todd Stashwick, Laura San Giacomo, Jim O’Heir, Peter Jacobson, Keith Powers, Cassandra Cardenas, Al Madrigal, Rain Phoenix, Anne Ramsay, Colleen Camp, Federico Dordei, Jason Dohring, Jordan Belfi
Director-screenwriter: Justine Bateman
Producers: Justine Bateman, Michael D Jones, Larry Hummel, Matt Paul
Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Jay Paul, Matt Lituchy, Rob Rubano, Jonathan Schurgin, Anders Liljeblad
Director of photography: Mark Williams
Production designer: Fernanda Guerrero
Costume designer: Peggy A. Schnitzer
Editor: Jay Friedkin
Music: Vum
Casting directors: Orly Sitowitz, Stacey Pianko
Sales: CAA

92 minutes