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TIFF 2021: Violet, A Banquet, Kicking Blood

Three stories of very troubled women unfolded in Toronto in the first few days of the 2021 International Film Festival, with mixed but largely frustrating results. The best of the three is Justine Bateman’s Violet,” featuring a performance from Olivia Munn that earned raves when the film premiered at South by Southwest earlier this year. Bateman has given Munn her most complex, challenging role to date as a film executive balancing a high-stress life with issues of severe anxiety and issues of self-worth. Bateman’s film is experimental in a sense, trying to capture the daily existence of insecurity with tools that only cinema can provide, and it’s easy to appreciate the ambition of it even if I didn’t quite believe everything about it.

Munn plays Violet, a hard-working executive in the cutthroat world of film production. She’s surrounded largely by aggressive assholes and self-obsessed idiots, and it feels like the constant degradation of her profession has amplified her internal monologue, which, believe it or not, we literally hear. Justin Theroux brings life to the voice in Violet’s head that’s constantly questioning her actions, emotions, and value, while Bateman takes it a step further and scribbles in cursive across the screen the inner thoughts that Violet can’t speak but that drive her behavior. To add even more intensity to Violet’s near-constant state of panic, Bateman intercuts rapid-fire images, some dark and violent, some from Violet’s past. What results is a character drama that plays like a psychological thriller, and there are times when it’s undeniably effective.

Sadly, a bit too much around Violet feels forced. Dennis Boutsikaris plays Violet’s boss as a Weinstein-type monster, a creature who enjoys humiliating his best executive, probably because he’s threatened by her. Every relationship in “Violet,” including an ex, new boyfriend and estranged brother, feels a tad too calculated—they’re plot devices meant to impact Violet’s subconscious. The result is that the exaggerated outer expression of Violet’s inner emotions isn’t offset against reality enough to give it power. The truth is that we are all a little like Violet—hearing voices of self-doubt and having flashes of violent memories than can derail our lives—but I wish it was easier to see that common truth in “Violet” instead of just admire it from a distance.

Another experimental film about issues of doubt and self-worth comes from Scotland’s Ruth Paxton in the form of the unsettling “A Banquet,” a strong concept in search of a movie. Her film is a hard one to decipher, throwing im themes common to exorcism films, body horror, and even dramas about troubled adolescence and eating disorders into the pot but not really figuring out what to do with them. It’s a movie that’s constantly threatening to shape itself into something focused and powerful, but is too content to leave many of its best ideas unexplored. I kept wishing and hoping it would get better, but I only found myself more and more starved.

Paxton’s film opens with the startling suicide of the husband of Holly (Sienna Guillory) witnessed by her daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander). Years later, still traumatized by the event, Betsey is at a party, from which she wanders away and into a large yard. She looks up to a red moon and seems changed. When she returns home, she says her body feels tingly, as if something is different in the world. And she no longer wants to eat. She refuses everything her increasingly terrified mother places in front of her. The weird thing? Months later, Betsy has lost no weight.

Obviously, there’s a horror/supernatural element to “A Banquet,” but the best parts of Paxton’s film emerge from that divide that often happens between parent and teenager, the years wherein neither half of the equation feels understood or seen. Some of this gets repetitive and overwritten, but I was most drawn to the great Lindsay Duncan, who imbues Holly’s mother with a kind of skeptical disapproval of all of her actions. It feels like she reached that divide with her daughter years earlier and never bothered to try to cross it. Duncan is legitimately great.

I just wish she was in a more satisfying movie. As “A Banquet” reached its overheated climax, I realized I didn’t care enough where it was going or what Paxton was trying to say with it. She keeps her characters as ciphers to increase the tension, but it gives the whole thing an exaggerated anti-realism that’s not supplanted with enough style or personality on a visual level to sustain the film. It’s like a meal that looks so rich and satisfying at first but lacks in flavor.

Finally, there’s the similarly frustrating “Kicking Blood,” another movie with a confident set-up that pulls away as it unfolds. I have to pause here for a minute to say that the people who write descriptions for program notes often do a film a disservice. Comparing this work to George A. Romero’s “Martin” and “Stuart Gordon’s early films” sets a standard that would be high for anyone to meet (and really isn’t accurate here in terms of tone either, although I guess I get the comparison to the intentionally unrealistic tone of projects like “Re-Animator” but there's no such gleeful gore). The truth is that we have seen a lot of films like Blaine Thurier’s vampire drama as bloodsucking creatures of the night have long been the milieu of independent horror. There’s something about the eternal ennui of vampires that fits DIY filmmaking. After all, fake teeth are cheaper than zombie make-up.

Anna (Alanna Bale) hates her life of immortality. Honestly, Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” might have been a better comparative given how that film centered vampires who were just tired of being surrounded by boring humans, not unlike Anna. She meets an unusual one in the form of Robbie (Luke Bilyk), a suicidal alcoholic who doesn’t seem to blink much when he learns that Anna is a vampire. After all, he wants to die. Perhaps that’s what draws Anna to him. Her fellow vampires see humans as weak, begging food—Robbie is different, and so is Anna’s only mortal friend Bernice (Rosemary Dunsmore), who is deathly ill. In a sense, Bernice and Robbie are choosing how they want to die—something that Anna can never do.

Clearly, it’s thematically rich stuff, and I admired a lot of Thurier’s ideas, even if the film often feels too shapeless. It’s the kind of script that demands a stronger visual language, and Thurier struggles a bit with dialogue, sometimes sounding like he’s purposefully mimicking B-movie clichés, but then faltering when he’s clearly attempting something more realistic. If you’re going to make a movie that’s compared to Romero and Gordon, you can’t do it halfway. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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