There’s something instantly recognisable about Sadie (Olivia Wilde) in Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante. We’ve seen this type of character before, most recently in films like Lynn Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, or Melanie Laurent’s Galveston. She’s a lone avenger with a traumatic past, the scourge of her enemies, and yet far more trapped in a prison of her own psyche than the people she liberates from bondage and fear.
YetSadie feels different than Uma Thurman’s sword-wielding assassin from Kill Bill, or Jennifer Garner’s vengeful mother in Peppermint. Most revenge fantasies place its protagonists in wish-fulfilment scenarios. Things that would never happen in real life suddenly become par for the course, like one training montage leading to military-grade fighting skills. They’re stylised and glossy even amid the violence. Not here. A Vigilante is a brutal film, as cold and bleak as its industrial upstate New York setting.
The first time we meet Sadie, we know as little about her as the female client she’s on her way to help. Standing over a dinky sink, she’s applying prosthetic crows feet using $6 latex. We soon learn that it’s part of her MO. She moves from one seedy motel to the next, answering the calls of women trying to get out of abusive relationships. Soon after that initial introduction, disguised as an insurance lawyer, she confronts a violent husband, leaving him bloody and battered on the floor. As she stands over him, he signs over the house, quits his job, transfers most of his money into his wife’s bank account, and leaves. As he exits, Sadie warns him: "If you bother them I will kill you. I want to kill you."
It’s not until nearly halfway through the film that we finally learn why Sadie has chosen this path. A victim of abuse herself, she very narrowly escaped with her life, even as she suffered a tremendous loss. Although she goes out of her way to help others, her own personal life is a mess. When a song her ex used to favour inadvertently shows up on a playlist, her stoicism gives way to physical convulsions and hyperventilation as she tries, desperately, to hold it together.
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 that rival Keri Russell’s on The Americans, she conveys 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. This is a woman who pushes her body to the brink in the hope that it will give her some modicum of control.
That punishing physical strain serves her well. In a climactic finale, Sadie does eventually confront her abuser. It’s excruciating, and frankly a little gross — there’s this thing involving a talon-sharp fingernail that I won’t spoil, but ugh. And even in the midst of this predictable stand-off, A Vigilante subverts expectations. Sadie’s husband, played by a gruffly handsome Morgan Spector, isn’t the one-dimensional monster you’d expect. In fact, it’s uncomfortably easy to picture him and Sadie together as a couple.
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.
In many ways, this is fodder that could easily degrade into a shallow, easy performance of faux-feminism. But Daggar-Nickson, who also wrote the script, takes the harder route, digging deep into the wounds rubbed raw by the #MeToo movement. A Vigilante tackles women’s anger, of course, but it’s most concerned with their pain, and how that affects their healing process. And most significantly, it explores that trauma in a way that feels mostly divorced from the men who inflict it.
Daggar-Nickson doesn’t appear to be interested in explaining the root causes of abuse. The film’s most violent scenes aren’t depicted on screen, nor is there much time devoted to the aggressors. Instead, A Vigilante focuses on the aftermath. How do these women find a sense of self after being robbed of it? We follow Sadie into group sessions, where we hear other women share their own stories, each one more disturbing than the next. And yet, this sometimes creates an action vacuum that forces us, as the audience, to confront our own expectations. What would we rather be seeing? An abusive relationship unfolding in real time? Or the long, sometimes tedious process of getting better?
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
A Vigilante is in UK cinemas from 31st May