There have been plenty of better performances this year, but I’m not sure I’ve experienced any as stressful as the one Justin Theroux gives in Violet, the feature directorial debut of Justine Bateman. You never see Theroux on screen, but he’s all over the film — he gets in your head the same way he lives rent free in the mind of the titular main character, a Hollywood development executive played superbly by Olivia Munn. Theroux is the villain of the piece — and he’s a most unusual (although depressingly common) villain, because he portrays the negative voice in her head. Violet spends the entire movie coping with Theroux’s internal monologue telling her that she’s awful. It’s the greatest foe most of us know.
Violet, which opens Friday, has a clever narrative conceit. We see Violet go through her regular day, but her actions are supplemented by two cinematic devices. The first is the occasional inclusion of handwritten words on the screen, presumably her most vulnerable and candid feelings in that moment. The other is Theroux’s voice on the soundtrack: He’s playing the negative, defensive part of herself that keeps her living in fear. The voice tells her she’s stupid or that people don’t like her or that she’s wasting her life — and when the voice isn’t berating her, it’s sternly warning her not to act on certain instincts because it’s convinced that she’ll ruin everything. When her producer boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) is behaving like a sexist asshole, the voice — Violet nicknames it “the Committee” — insists she shouldn’t tell him off. After all, who would hire such an untalented person like her? She’s worthless, so she’d better just put up with the harassment.
Films create tension in all kinds of ways, but Violet generates a distinct brand of anxiety, especially if you’re someone who has his or her own Committee inside their brain. I feel grateful that my negative voice isn’t nearly as loud as Violet’s, but what Bateman does really well is dramatize those feelings in concrete ways. Over the course of Violet, Violet will interact with different people — possible love interests, potential new employers — but because it’s Theroux as the voice, there’s such a calm, authoritative quality to the negativity that it feels genuine, just like it can for any of us. Violet’s every exchange with the outside world is poisoned by the Committee, which repeatedly makes her feel worse about herself. Theroux rarely raises his voice because the steady confidence of the Committee is the real killer. He’s so chillingly matter-of-fact when he’s informing Violet that she’s fat and unlovable and a bad friend — there’s nothing even taunting or scolding about his tone. He’s not trying to be mean, it’s just that some things are just the way they are — clearly, Violet is a failure.
Of course, she isn’t really, which is why it’s crucial that Munn play her with enough intelligence and empathy that we recognize that, while she’s susceptible to her inner critic, she’s not actually what the Committee says about her. That’s a tricky balancing act — playing a bright, complicated person who’s nonetheless at the mercy of her insecurities — and Munn nails it. But Bateman shows how tough that fight is. Blessedly, Violet doesn’t have some cutesy fantasy/comedy angle — we don’t learn that, say, Theroux is a real person, or that the two of them are eventually able to communicate with one another. It’s a one-sided conversation that Theroux dominates. Violet’s meager defense are the cursive words that flash across the screen, and Munn’s melancholy face indicates that they’re not nearly enough — that she’s come to accept the Committee’s harsh words as an indisputable truth about herself.
Of all the voices in the world, I love that Bateman chose Theroux’s. Apparently, her brother Jason Bateman suggested him, and Theroux gives the “character” just the right inflection. Frankly, it’s the same refined air he’s conveyed on projects like Parks and Recreation as the self-satisfied bon vivant — or as the smug inventor/scam artist in the recent remake of The Mosquito Coast. On screen, Theroux has the ability to play men who are awfully impressed with themselves, who think others should be lucky to even breathe the same oxygen as him. He can make arrogance look dashing.
Well, in Violet, reduced to just his voice, Theroux uses that exact quality to depict the Committee as patronizing and demanding. The voice keeps telling Violet to be afraid of taking risks because, you see, he’s just looking out for her. There’s an unmistakable paternal quality to the Committee — a “tsk, tsk, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, sweetheart” aspect to his performance that’s extremely pointed. Bateman has said she based the script on her own struggles with making fear-based decisions in the past, and I’m curious if there were men who instilled this thinking within her. Men often believe they’re being helpful to the women around them by acting protective and cautious on their behalf, but it can end up making them feel belittled and bullied. As for Violet’s negative thoughts about her attractiveness or other personal qualities, it’s not hard to imagine some prick saying those things in real life. The movie finds a new twist on toxic masculinity, casting it as the disapproving voice in our head who tells us we’re not good enough.
There’s an undeniable touchy-feely aspect to Violet as Violet eventually takes control of her life and stops listening to that negative voice. Ultimately, this is a story about breaking bad habits and becoming a better you. “I want to share this with other people who might be in that same situation I was in years ago and want to have that map to get out of it,” Bateman has said. “My hope is that people can see this film and become more fully themselves. This is the film I wish I had seen at 19, because I would have become myself faster than I did.” That’s an upbeat notion, but as with other struggles related to mental health, negative self-talk isn’t something you can quite cure — it’s an ongoing battle, an evolving conversation you learn how to mediate. I won’t reveal Violet’s ending, but let’s just say its resolution proves to be a little more clear-cut than that, which is disappointing.
But that’s also a testament to how disturbingly good Theroux is in the role. In interviews, he’s always come across as a thoughtful, enlightened guy. But in Violet, there’s an edge of menace to his hurtful comments. As the Committee, he’s too believable at depicting the ways that we all let our inner critic berate us, keeping us in the same scared limbo state, fearful of doing anything differently. Theroux has such an unshakeable conviction in what he’s saying that you can understand why Violet has been so chained to the Committee’s proclamations about herself. It’s a horrible feeling to look in the mirror and know that who’s staring back is your worst enemy. Lots of movies are described as head-trips, but Violet may be the one most of us will be able to relate to — it’s a horror movie about the hell of living with yourself.