A few weeks ago I had the displeasure to sit through Eli Roth’s Death Wish, a revenge thriller that sucked for many reasons, but most importantly because you didn’t really care about the revenge at all. There was no emotional push to get you embedded with the character going around causing violence and mayhem, and it often didn’t seem like the bad guys deserved their gruesome fate. Not to mention the fact that the lead actor didn’t seem to want to be there, and the film’s themes were a bit disturbing. It just fell flat.
A Vigilante is the exact opposite in almost every single way.
Director: Sarah Daggar-Nickson
Release Date: TBD
A Vigilante follows the story of Sadie (Olivia Wilde), who after a tragic and abusive marriage begins to use her “unique set of skills” gained from survivalist camping, and personal defense to avenge others who are abused. This ranges from abusive husbands to abusive mothers to assholes in general. It’s the kind of revenge movie where you desperately want everyone to get beat up because they’re all terrible people. The kind of revenge movie that works.
Sadie is also looking for her ex-husband, who fled to the wilderness after committing a hanoues crime that I don’t want to spoil here. This sets up the general thrust of the film, where Sadie helps out abused wives, children, and families while scouring the area she knows her husband is hiding mile by mile. In that way the film is pretty standard in its story line, but in almost every other way it is not.
To begin there is an emotional depth to the movie that is often lacking in films like this. Because of the subject matter, and the horrors committed on both Sadie herself and the people she’s helping things get very dark, and it actually affects our hero emotionally. This isn’t your stoic badass, mowing down bad guys in his never ending quest for justice. At one point, after saving two children from their abusive mother, Sadie has a breakdown in her car. At another point a support group of abused women powerfully and tragically share their stories. It can be gut wrenching at times, but it also sets up perfectly that feeling of satisfaction that these movies are supposed to generate when the revenge finally comes.
Daggar-Nickson, who also wrote the screenplay, directs the film with a blunt realism that doesn’t shy away from reality, but also isn’t exploitational. Sadie isn’t an elite ninja with super human speed, she’s just an in shape woman who knows how to fight. She gets hurt, she barely fights, her actions are often off screen. Daggar-Nickson will hold the camera still for extended time, sucking the emotion out of her actors wonderfully, and forcing the audience to confront the tragedy on screen. This isn’t about the violence, but the story instead, and it makes the film powerful. Daggar-Nickson has quite the career ahead of her as is this her debut film, and she nails it.
Wilde herself tears through the film with a verve I didn’t know she had. She is stark, and silent, yet creates a character that is tortured. She is in almost every scene of the film and carries it. With a lesser performance the subject matter and tone of the movie could have come across as crass, but instead it feels true to itself and its message thanks to Wilde’s grounding performance.
My only real issue is the conclusion, which, after such an incredibly layered film starts to veer off into cliche, and generalization. It’s not bad in any way, but it feels a bit disconnected for the darkness that came before it as it plays out more traditionally. Sadie’s husband turns out to be an over-the-top psychopath that drags the film a bit out of its realism and into actiony territory. It’s not until the very end that we get a bit of nuance with his character, and it would have been helpful for that to be there. Thankfully, Wilde’s strong performance pulls through the entire movie, so that int he very end the emotional beats still land, along with her badassness in tact.