“When I tell you I’m lonely I don’t want you to think…there’s nothing to look forward to. I’m still looking for it.” Aren’t we all looking for that elusive “it,” the thing that mends our alienation, that gives our life meaning, that makes all our despondency worthwhile?
As Dagny approaches the glistening glacier water, she exclaims to her sister that she’s “tired of doing things that mean nothing.” Like a baptism, Dagny immerses herself into the water, hoping to hear from God, to find meaning, but when she arises from under the surface, she looks around for an epiphany and instead only sees and hears the indifference of the enormous mountains and cold wind. Although Dagny’s search seems typical for a coming-of-age story, Violent is more profound and universal.
This film doesn’t move to narrative conventions–it flows like water; it emotes like music; it’s a poem made up of images and sounds. There is a story, but it’s intentionally fractured and fragmented. The ecstatic–the feelings, themes, atmospheres–is what connects each moment. Oftentimes, Violent is cinema at its most lyrical, most heartbreaking, and most personal. There has never been a film like it; there may never be another one.
The feature film debut from Amazing Factory and Andrew Huculiak won Best Canadian Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2014, where it upset Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Huculiak is the drummer of We Are The City, an indie rock band behind this film’s eerie, electronic score. The movie is almost entirely in Norwegian, a language none of the band members speak, so their footage had to be translated back into English so that it could be edited. Violent couldn’t have been made in any other place; the haunting exteriors and mountainous backdrops are uniquely ghastly.
Dagny’s transition into adulthood is chronicled in five distinct, mostly plotless chapters, each one focusing on a different person in her life. Every section is bookended by an interlude of surreal imagery–the earth cracking open, chairs floating, people levitating–with an ominous soundtrack which includes bass-heavy buzzing and electronic humming. This is a story about the disillusionment teenagers face as they transition into adulthood, and how this sense of loneliness is inescapable even into old age. We’re born alone. We live alone. We die alone. If actions have little meaning, if memories fade, if we’re going to die, what makes it all worthwhile? We, like Dagny, are forced to search for it, but Violent is all the more mysterious and moving because it has no answers to our alienation, only questions and moods.
During the fourth chapter, when Dagny meets a young man named Andrew, they spend a night together, drawing on a wall, cuddling on a couch, and sitting on a rooftop wrapped in a blanket as they ponder philosophical questions–how should one live their life in this lonely world? In one of the film’s rare moments of ecstasy, Dagny and Andrew share a deeper connection without romance, but even the joy in this moment is undercut by death’s unshakable grip. The power plant perched on the forested hill, a symbol of coming death, hangs over this scene and many others.
Subtly and subliminally, Violent’s editing and mise en scène craft a dreamy tone that somehow still feels grounded. Consider how brilliantly Huculiak and his editor Joseph Scweers manipulate continuity editing to preserve the conventions of realism while hinting at the subjective when Dagny and Andrew are on the rooftop.
To transition to this scene, there is an establishing shot of the power plant with a sound bridge of dialogue between Dagny and Andrew. The juxtaposition of the establishing shot of the power plant, with one of the two characters looking offscreen, creates an eyeline match between images, giving the appearance that Dagny and Andrew are looking at the power plant. Later in the scene, there is another eyeline match, but this time it’s not of the electrical plant–it’s the stars in the sky. With the characters looking in exactly the same spot offscreen, you would expect that they should be staring at exactly the same thing.
The first cut is evidently more associative than literal. The stars and power plant can’t be in the same spot, but the juxtaposition works because it is relates metaphorically and poetically. The power plant may not be in that exact spot but for Dagny, it feels like it is; death could be staring back at us in any moment.
Dialogue is often the cheapest and least inspired way to develop themes and ideas, but, although Violent engages in cerebral conversations, what makes it such an experimental and chilling experience is how these grounded and mundane interactions are visually morphed with the subjective and fantastical. There are two clear visual styles: the unobtrusive realism with wide compositions, long takes and naturalistic acting, and the montage-heavy aesthetic that is used mostly in between each chapter.
In a final reveal we discover what is causing Dagny’s surreal experiences. What we are seeing has been filtered through her consciousness during an ominous event as she reconsiders her life, saying goodbye to those who loved her, while also meditating on the philosophical. Can we find fulfillment in God? Romantic love? Familial relationships? A best friend? Each character Dagny encounters has a different way of coping in their desolate environment, but whenever they verge on bliss, death looms over them like dark clouds on an overcast day, ready to rain down at any moment. Violent would rather evoke than explain, and challenge rather than pander. It has no answers but it forces us to consider questions. Is there meaning to this life? Can we be happy if we’re always truly alone?