Revenge fantasy in cinema will never go out of style, but in a more sensitive age, vigilante films without a thoughtful touch can meet their own swift and merciless end. Take Eli Roth‘s neo-conservative wet dream remake of “Death Wish,” recently savaged by audiences and critics for its soulless, unthinking vengeance. The masculine, gung-ho individualism of this genre, aggressively promoting Second Amendment rights to enact revenge, might have worked a few years prior, but today, feels tone deaf, dated and poorly-timed.
This is why Sarah Daggar-Nickson‘s audacious feature-length directorial debut “A Vigilante” works as something with much more heft; a resonant product of its time and a reimagining of a repulsive subgenre into a harrowing, feminist gut-punch. Featuring a captivating and utterly fearless turn by Olivia Wilde as an abuse survivor who favors a thoroughly refined military self-defense and fighting method known as Krav Maga over guns, she aims to deliver a physically-pummeling reckoning to all spousal abusers in her area. Don’t mistake this for “Kill Bill” or any kind of popcorn escapism, Daggar-Nickson’s raw, sobering work is challenging and poignant.
In “A Vigilante,” Wilde plays Sadie, a woman who cannot seem to shake her severe, but unexplained post-traumatic stress syndrome. While her trauma is kept a mystery to the audience initially, the scars and burns on her back don’t lie. Sadie’s been through hell and back, and the smoldering fury in her face isn’t something easily hidden. As we learn in flashbacks, Sadie is a domestic abuse survivor, not only attacked and dehumanized, but brought down to her knees begging for her life by her unforgiving husband (Morgan Spector). Worse, her maniac husband murdered her son and left her for dead as he fled into the wilderness.
With nothing left to live for, Sadie finds ways to tackle her grief and joins other survivors of domestic abuse in group therapy. It’s at this facility that she realizes she’s not alone, there are plenty of victims just like her, which gives her the idea of learning survivalist training, the aforementioned Krav Maga, to find a way to bring some kind of justice to abused women and children in the area. She won’t kill them, but she’ll instill fear in them and enough anxiety, trauma, into their core to never want to touch a woman again.
Although “A Vigilante” features all the hallmarks of a cartoonish action movie on the surface, and the film does cover familiar territory in its final act, Daggar-Nickson’s drama resists the glib and treats its protagonist’s trauma with the utmost respect. Her skill as a filmmaker is on display too; she crafts something more psychologically and convincingly fragmented, an art-house version of revenge with believably shattered morals. In fact, as the movie reveals itself in a broken, non-chronological fashion, it begins to recall Lynne Ramsay‘s upcoming “You Were Never Really Here,” sharing similarities in terms of tone, structure and theme. “A Vigilante” also is driven by stark gazes and images rather than dialogue.
With anger, anguish in just her eyes, Wilde, de-glammed, and baring no makeup, gives a sparse and minimalist performance which suits the film perfectly. Daggar-Nickson’s feminist approach give the film texture too; she finds the time to showcase the community and cultural impact that a support group can bring by bonding and acknowledging the bruises that linger on in mentally and physically scarred.
“A Vigilante” carries a narrative misstep here and there. It relies too heavily on unveiling Sadie’s precise motivations through group therapy, with the obvious intention to also recreate the experience of hearing survivors grapple with their grief. The film’s ending feels somewhat disconnected with the rest of the film as it turns into a more conventional genre picture with less thought and more action. However, these are flaws that can be forgiven, especially since Daggar-Nickson is a first-time filmmaker showing great promise here with her eye for the camera. She’s made a film that is sober, unflinching and fits perfectly with the current political movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. [B]
“A Vigilante” will be released this Friday, March 29th.