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Hostile Work Environment

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TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
Violet (2021)

This movie could only have been made in United States, and not just because it’s about what happens when fear is your primary emotion. There’s a sequence of Violet (Olivia Munn) at a party for work – she is a film producer in Los Angeles – mingling with various peers in the large backyard of someone’s lovely home. By the pool there’s an open, catered bar. She orders a dirty martini, which takes a little while to prepare, but when it comes she allows herself only two tiny sips before giving it to a passing waiter. But of course, when she leaves she must pick up her car from the valet parking and drive herself home. No wonder she is fearful and anxious; the lack of external help for something as simple as getting home from a party means true relaxation is an impossible dream. If we needed a metaphor for the emotional state the country has worked itself into, this movie would be a good place to start.

On the surface Violet should have it made. She has a high-powered job as a producer in Tom Gaines’s (Dennis Boutsikaris) small yet mighty company, but it’s an awful place to work – her team openly bully and disrespect her, and Tom thinks nothing of insulting her to her face in business meetings. She’s presently crashing with a childhood friend, Red (Luke Bracey), a screenwriter, meaning he’s a socially undesirable contact for a producer, regardless of how personally enticing he is. And inside her head there’s a voice (Justin Theroux) that heaps abuse on every single little thing she does: what she eats, how she must behave in meetings so as not to get fired, how she drives her car – everything, literally everything. It’s a tsunami of disgust and contempt that’s narrated her life for years, making her miserable – but the decision to make the voice male instead of female makes it clear these are not Violet’s true thoughts. It’s her fear and her anxiety talking (and Mr. Theroux is as good as Scarlett Johansson was in “Her”); her own thoughts appear scribbled on the screen. It’s intense and immersive, but never quite overwhelming – the movie gets the balance exactly right.

And writer-director Justine Bateman goes to great pains to show that the thoughts are incorrect, firstly when Violet bumps into an old boyfriend (Simon Quarterman) with whom things ended very badly but with whom things now go in a non-clichéd direction. Later, Violet is in a planning meeting with a director called Janice (Laura San Giacomo, always welcome onscreen), when she bumps into two producers from a rival company (Jerry O’Heir and Jason Dohring), who make plain their admiration for Violet in the form of a job offer. Instinctively, but very politely, Violet pushes them away. But Janice is impressed with their high opinion of her, so Violet begins to reconsider.

Ms. Munn is in the middle of a moment thanks to her personal life, but her work in this movie makes it clear how much she’s been underestimated as an actress. As she navigates her days, we can see her trying desperately not to listen to the voice, and how desperately upset she is whenever she caves and does what the voice wants. It’s a subtle balancing act and a fine achievement. Mark Williams’s cinematography and Jay Friedkin’s beautiful editing do a great deal to contrast the sunshine and the tasteful, expensive surroundings with the chaos inside Violet’s head. There are a few quibbles with Ms. Bateman’s script, not least that the supportive best friend Lilah (Erica Ash) and the equally supportive underling in the office (Keith Powers) are the only black people in the movie. The pressure in Violet’s personal life also ramps up one step too far – although this does allow Bonnie Bedelia to spit acid in a crucial small part. But thanks to Red’s polite insistence that she doesn’t have to keep making the choices she has in the past – Mr. Bracey radiates a calm decency as appealing as his good looks – Violet starts to think that changes are overdue.

Who knew Mallory from “Family Ties” had it in her? Ms. Bateman almost certainly will not appreciate being identified as the teenage star of an ’80s sitcom when she’s made this fascinating movie now about how a woman owns her own worth. But there’s a straight line between the things Ms. Bateman must have seen on sets growing up and the issues Violet is juggling. It’s a spectacular, not entirely pleasant, achievement, but one that anyone who has struggled with self-doubt will understand to the bone.

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