There is something tired about the vigilante fantasy, that often masculine and oh, so American dream of rugged individualism aggressively exercising its Second Amendment rights to act mighty. In the 1970s, it might have felt like a cynical escape from helplessness, but today it often resembles a delusion clung to by those who refuse to help their fellow man—or woman. This is why Sarah Daggar-Nickson and Olivia Wilde’s A Vigilante packs such a subversive punch. Not only does first-time writer and director Daggar-Nickson reimagine a reductive reverie into one of harrowing, feminine empowerment, but she does so in a way that is wary of violence, even while using it to defang the type of toxic masculinity that has long wallowed in all those Death Wish sequels.
By fixating on a captivating and utterly ferocious turn by Olivia Wilde as a woman who tries to do to abusers in a single visit what they do to their wives and children over a lifetime, there is an intimate sorrow and authenticity to the film that intentionally deflates any attempts at popcorn thrills. Instead it finds something rawer and more challenging, especially when the limbs actually start to snap, and the fantasy of revenge stops feeling so abstract.
In the film, Wilde plays Sadie, a woman who is haunted by a past that remains obscured for most of the picture’s running time, and yet is immediately understandable and unsettling. You can know her story by simply studying the scars and burn marks on her back, or the fury on her face. When Sadie tells the first man she forces on-screen to sign over his house and bank account to his wife that “I want to kill you,” there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that she is telling the truth.
Sadie was a victim of domestic abuse, attacked and dehumanized by her husband (Morgan Spector), who was a survivalist that beat his wife and son before disappearing into the wilderness. With nothing left to live for, Sadie found solace and eventually a purpose by sharing her grief with other survivors of domestic abuse in group therapy. In turn, she gets the idea to use her own survivalist training to channel her anger against any men who abuse their wives and children. She won’t kill them, but she’ll certainly put the fear of death into them, as they had done to Sadie and so many like her over generations.
All of this has the obvious hallmarks of an action-thriller fantasy, and while the movie certainly reaches for taut suspense by its third act, the picture avoids every inclination to tell a straightforward piece of escapism. Sadie’s story is revealed non-chronologically and via an intimate character study that keeps the camera mostly glued to Wilde’s eyes. Violence is brutal, ugly, and often out-of-frame. And rather than being driven by plot, A Vigilante is propelled by Wilde’s intense gaze, whether toward her past or the board she is about to smash over a lecher’s head.
In her best film work since Meadowland, Wilde is practically hypnotic as a woman who is too human to be a superhero, but may yet develop the eventual cult following of one. Unglamorous and devoid of makeup and pretension, Wilde’s performance is often sparse and minimalist, just like her film, which details her anger and anguish in equal measure. The picture defies the well-worn vision of a “lone gunman” making a difference by taking a more feminine approach at understanding its heroine. She finds strength in community and culture via talking things out in a quietly believable support group, which includes a warm Tonye Patano as the counselor. We also live with the bruises and pain that lingers on Sadie; she may be stoic while on the hunt, but the movie is more interested in following her home as she has to cope with the aftermath.
When the sequences of brutality come, they’re often visceral but again more focused on how it effects the character. The film opens with Sadie in makeup and a wig coldly dealing out punishment to a husband who she threatens will die if he ever comes near his (soon to be) ex-wife again. And it ends on a purely savage and almost elemental showdown, but in between the violence is a blur that is more of an extra texture in the film’s portraiture instead of its focal point.
Narratively, A Vigilante misses the full cohesion that often bedevils first-time films, including an overreliance on unveiling Sadie’s precise motivations almost exclusively through conversations in group. The obvious intention is to recreate the experience of hearing survivors grapple with their grief, but the film’s ending thus feels somewhat disconnected with much of the rest of the picture as a consequence. Some of the emphasis also being on how Sadie interprets the world causes it to be unclear what is happening out of frame during several crucial moments. However, these flaws that trouble many other first-timers at film festivals are largely smaller imperfections in a movie that is soberly and unflinchingly of our moment and has a very sharp axe to grind—one that finds its target too.
As the kind of movie that is sure to make the blood boil for those who’d call abusers men of “true integrity and honor,” A Vigilante is an unsparing rebuttal tailor-made for our time, and sadly all times. It is easy to seek out for the wish fulfillment, but the mark it leaves is painfully real.