“If I just don’t say anything, it’s better,” Violet (Olivia Munn) insists to her coworker, who’s observed the way she allows employees to walk all over her. It’s a resonating statement for those of us who live our lives trying to please, to keep the peace, with every conversation feeling like a test or a challenge that must be beaten in order to escape. In Justine Bateman‘s COVID-delayed directorial debut, Violet, (which had been set to premiere at last year’s canceled SXSW), these feelings are entirely dictated by the obstructive voice in Violet’s head (played to perfection by the smoldering undertones of Justin Theroux).
But these insecurities extend far beyond Violet’s work life and into her personal life as well, to occasionally devastating results. The relatively experimental film — Bateman employs numerous motifs, such as consistent text-on-screen, to convey what Violet truly desires in opposition to The Voice — is an exceedingly individualistic take on the self-doubts and uncertainties that hold us back from fully self-actualizing. But the unique approach to storytelling is hindered by the story itself. Ultimately, the necessary emotional depth is missing to convey why we should truly care both about what’s happening to Violet.
Her life is entirely dictated by this Voice — a “committee in her head,” as she describes it — and this sentiment of preferring to not say anything is far more heightened in her toxic work environment. As a film development executive, she still answers to the slimy older executive who wields his status over her like a weapon, and she’s cowed by the insecurities she feels towards the snarky underlings who don’t respect her. This is all in spite of her high-ranking status and the lasting influence she’s had on the company, but her demure personality and hesitance to speak her truth both force her into a position of constant subservience.
While construction is ongoing in her own apartment, Violet’s been staying with her friend, Red (Luke Bracey), for whom she has palpable feelings. However, The Voice in her head urges her to not pursue any romance, in order to preserve the friendship. Violet holds back or stays muted in nearly every aspect of her life due to the constant barrage of torment from The Voice, who is insistent that the real Violet will ruin things. She holds off on the production of the art film she’s passionate about because she fears pushback from her narrow-minded boss. She gives excuses and non-answers to her emotionally abusive family members who gaslight and guilt-trip her. She turns down a warm job offer from a far more tolerant boss because she’s afraid, both of losing her stability in her current job and of not being good enough for a new one. And oftentimes, these situations push Violet to a breaking point, where she snaps at well-meaning friends due to her own internal war being waged.
Violet’s biggest mistake, begat from listening to The Voice, takes the form of leaving candles burning in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. The Voice had been insistent that leaving the candles aflame would prove that Violet is not beholden to the constraints of responsibility. But Violet only returns to a burning building and her devastated ex, Martin (Simon Quarterman) who, overcome with rage, bellows at her and questions how she could be so stupid. While perhaps a far-fetched scenario, it articulates the harm that can come both to ourselves and to others by listening to the most negative, cynical parts of ourselves above all else.
Eventually, Violet realizes that The Voice isn’t always right, which pushes her to further question its true integrity. Violet’s distress and breaking points are depicted through a variety of visual devices. There’s a solid red color that slowly fades in and envelops the entire screen, discordant clamor over a series of seemingly unrelated images; and the aforementioned text-on-screen, which goes unsaid in Violet’s mind in opposition to the overpowering Voice. The film depicts a grueling circumstance which many can relate to, and Olivia Munn gives one of the best performances of her career. Still, there’s something about Violet and her life that feels just out of reach — be it because of her cushy position as a studio executive, her pining for a movie-star-handsome hunk equal to her own unattainable beauty, or the way her deep-seated issues are never quite extrapolated on, other than fleeting self-reflection.
There’s something crucial missing in Violet and in every aspect of her life to allow her any true resonance. Much of her life feels like a put-on because so much of Violet’s life is presented to us at arm’s reach in brief moments, vague conversations, and transient flashbacks which offer access to just the tip of the iceberg. While featuring engaging subject matter, a stellar performance from Munn, and a distinctive filmmaking approach for Bateman’s debut film, Violet coalesces into something far less meaningful than what was intended.