Synopsis – A vigilante helps victims escape their domestic abusers.
My Take – I think we can all comfortably say that we are done with revenge fantasies, mainly as they often lean so far into overt escapism that they end up ignoring their story’s inherent human component. Somehow debutante director Sarah Daggar-Nickson feels she can do one better, by not delivering the moments of grim savagery in the way it entertains.
Here, the film endows a hardness and violence rarely seen, making the film’s lack of production resources a quality, giving the film an almost documentary tone. Hence, the final product is extremely dry, without any concession and full of scenes difficult to watch, given the crudity with which the camera reports the facts of the script, a style also used in filmmaker Lynn Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.
Yes, there is krav maga and there is a stunningly beautiful actress taking down domestic abusers while donning disguises, but here director Daggar-Nickson is more focused on a complex emotional cocktail which Wilde‘s character goes through. Some people may be going into this film expecting Taken or last year’s Peppermint, instead it is more of an emotional look at what woman go through in an abusive relationship.
But without a doubt, its Olivia Wilde‘s tough and bold performance that nearly elevates the material, as she provides a physical presence as strong as it needs to be, but also a vulnerability and tenacity. This is not your usual gimmicky revenge thriller, and also a hard film to watch due to the subject matter.
The story follows Sadie (Olivia Wilde), a former abuse survivor, who has embraced violence as a means of achieving her objectives, and does so by working as a fixer for women living in the shadow of domestic violence, who contact her by leaving a voicemail with a coded phrase. As she gets better at what she does after helping someone each time, Sadie knows ultimately it’s all going down to boil down to the moment she finds her husband (Morgan Spector) and punish him.
The film bounces back and forth between present day where she is helping people and then goes back to when she was part of a support group explaining what had happened to her. This where we learn that she and her family used to go survival camping and hunt for their own food. During those trips, her husband often would break her bones, but not in front of their son. The last time that he did that, her son witnessed it and in the struggle ended up losing his life.
The story of the film isn’t particularly complex, but that’s because the story isn’t really the focus. The focus instead is placed on the character and her emotional journey, with the events of the film simply being a catalyst for her internal growth. We have seen this type of revenge film done before, but not in a way that is quite as emotionally nuanced. As the film reveals itself (slightly confusingly) in a scattered, non-chronological fashion, the film begins to share a similar tone and structure to Lynne Ramsay‘s ‘You Were Never Really Here’.
This is a film which could have easily played out like a low budgeted version of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, or a simple yet sloppy revenge thriller that disguises toxic masculinity in the package of a female protagonist. Instead, it is a delicate and clever study of lasting scars both inside and out. Skillfully straddling the line between mourning and hope, the film offers some powerful moments where women are recounting what had happened to them in past relationships. The scenes feel uncut, which gives them an honest feel.
Those scenes were hard to watch since nobody should have to go through something like that. Sadie’s emotional telling of her “leaving story” is all the more gut-wrenching given just how shut-down she is for most the film. And yet, she’s still in there somewhere. At some point, she helps a young boy whose mother keeps him and his brother locked up. (An interesting plot addition that shows that abusers come in all forms and genders.) Their rapport is instant in the wordless recognition that two survivors share. It’s a tender moment, and you can see Sadie longing for a part of herself that is lost, before she hardens herself once more.
What’s most surprising is that the film seemed completely disinterested in depicting violence on screen, instead preferring to explore its impact. Here, director Daggar-Nickson doesn’t appear to be interested in explaining the root causes of abuse, nor is there much time devoted to the aggressors. We see Sadie walk a bruised and bleeding abuser through the front door of his house with a murmured threat, but we are never shown the beating.
An arm is bent over a piece of wood, but we never see the foot stamping down to break the limb, we only hear the resulting screams. My favorite scene in the film involves a woman whose abuser is tied up on his knees. While he sits with his head bent, his soon-to-be ex destroys everything in their house, breaking TVs, game consoles, dishes, as Sadie stands in the corner eating cereal and letting her have her moment.
However, due to a couple of reasons I wouldn’t rate the film higher. Firstly, the film does tend to meander a bit as it searches for its footing. The beginning of the film doesn’t give very much context, so we are left wondering who the protagonist is and why she is doing it. We can make assumptions, but it is not until the latter half of the film when she is given a (somewhat generic) backstory that we can fully understand her motivations.
While the plot and overall arc of Sadie is fascinating to watch unfold, these moments of sporadic randomness tend to rip us away from the story at hand, rather than push us further into understanding. The pacing is also predominantly where the film struggles. Since the story isn’t particularly new and exciting, the film has to find other ways to keep the audience’s interest, and after a while, it seems like the same thing is happening over and over again.
Eventually, when the character does begin to experience growth, the film becomes much more interesting, but then it leaves a scene or two abruptly, with too much information in the air, all leading down to a a rather haphazardly handled final act. Finally, once we learn the details of Sadie’s past, though, the film unfortunately loses its own bearings and never quite achieves the level of conversation piece perfectly meshed with populist entertainment as that film.
Nevertheless, the absolute highlight of the film is Olivia Wilde’s performance. Here, Wilde gives a raw, intense performance that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen her do. Stripped of makeup, her chiseled cheekbones concealed under a series of wigs, she conveys a starved, desperate strength. Her training scenes are painful to watch: her knuckles bleed as she one-two punches a dresser over, and over, and over again; sweat drips down her nose as she holds a plank for longer than is strictly healthy. She elevates what may have otherwise been a somewhat boring and bland film into something that is actually quite interesting.
Morgan Spector, doesn’t play his character as the one-dimensional monster you’d expect, instead soothingly crawls under your skin. Tonye Patano also does well in a smaller role. On the whole, ‘A Vigilante’ is an intense, emotional, slow burn thriller which despite its flaws is worth a watch for Olivia Wilde’s haunting performance.
Directed – Sarah Daggar-Nickson
Rated – R
Run Time – 91 minutes