That gaping disparity provides the central conflict within writer/director Justine Bateman’s feature filmmaking debut, “Violet.” Moving from in front of the lens to behind it, the former ‘80s sitcom star clearly has something personal and piercing to say. Her film will surely resonate with so many others who hear their own nagging voices in their heads. And as the title character, Olivia Munn gets the chance to show dramatic abilities we haven’t seen from her previously. But there are so many layers of excessive, incessant style on display in the depiction of Violet’s deep insecurities, they feel like overbearing clutter, preventing Munn’s performance from shining through as powerfully as it should.
Besides the voice (Justin Theroux, dripping with rich cruelty and sarcasm), Bateman also frequently reveals Violet’s more tender, vulnerable thoughts in the form of white cursive phrases scrawled across the screen. They’re her silent pleas to herself, to the world: “Is there something wrong with me?” “I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore.” “Please stay.” And when the pressure of a certain situation gets to be too much—a work meeting, or drinks with a friend—a low hum builds to a noisy din and a red wash floods the screen, drowning out everything, numbing her pain. “There,” the voice says soothingly. “Isn’t that better?”
As if all that weren’t enough, Bateman consistently cuts in quick snippets of violent and grotesque images throughout. A rapid-fire montage greets and grabs us from the start: car crashes, explosions, glass shattering, animals decaying. This startling artistic choice puts us on edge immediately and signals what kind of hyper-stylized film “Violet” is going to be. But then Bateman goes on to undermine herself by inserting brief flashes of this type of imagery in the middle of conversation to signify Violet’s building mania. Sometimes the cutaways are clunkily literal, such as a boxer getting punched in the face. The ultimate result is that Bateman takes away from the inherent drama or honesty she’d created in that moment. And finally, a flashback to a happier time in Violet’s life—riding her bicycle as a child in Michigan, smiling with the sun and wind in her hair—pops up and plays over and over like a home movie projected on whatever surface is nearby, whether it’s the inside of a tunnel or her bedroom wall. This is another device Bateman leans on too often, and at moments that sometimes seem random.