A Vigilante (Sydney Film Festival)
Olivia Wilde, Morgan Spector, Tonye Patano
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
A bleak, challenging, and angry piece of cinema, A Vigilante uses familiar genre tropes to explore uncomfortable truths.
Olivia Wilde Is Sadie, the vigilante of the title, a domestic abuse survivor who now works to rescue other victims from their tormentors. Not in any official capacity, mind you; Sadie’s phone number is quietly circulated in abuse support groups. One call with the right passphrase and she will appear like a summoned spirit of vengeance, more than willing to deploy savage violence to achieve her goals “I want to kill you,” she whispers to one violent hubby; she settles for beating him bloody until he agrees to sign over his house and 75% of his money to his wife, quit his job, and leave town forever.
Written and directed by Australian Sarah Daggar-Nickson, making her feature debut, A Vigilante is a revenge thriller, existing along the same axis as Death Wish, The Punisher, The Equaliser, and any of several dozen variations on the theme. The crucial difference is that the austere, uncompromising A Vigilante largely refuses us the catharsis of violent action. Yes, there’s plenty of damage meted out, and the people on the receiving end of Sadie’s anger richly deserve it, but it feels not so much like righteous wrath as compulsive acting out – she does this because she has nothing else left in her life.
Crucially, she has chosen this path. Sadie’s eyes are open. Her routine of anonymous hotels, YouTube make up tutorials (she disguises herself before each mission), Krav Maga drills, and absolute emotional isolation, punctuated by devastating PTSD-induced panic attacks and equally devastating acts of violence, is preferable to societal norms, because cleaving to those norms would make her complicit in ignoring the endemic violence against women that she herself was subject to.
One of the most striking and deliberately troubling elements of A Vigilante is the way it paints domestic abuse not as the actions of a few bad apples but as a silent epidemic occurring behind too many closed doors. Of course, Sadie’s husband (Morgan Spector) is a particularly vile example of a perpetrator and, this being a narrative film with certain in-built dramatic expectations, he does circle back into her world once more. Still, Daggar-Nickson takes pains to communicate that these abuses are not isolated incidents but part of a wide-spread pattern, largely invisible but nonetheless measurable. As a self-empowered righter of wrongs Sadie is a lone wolf, but she moves through a community of women forged in shared victimhood, and that community is vast.
It’s Sadie that our focus remains fixed upon, though, and Olivia Wilde’s bold, raw performance is the axis around which the whole thing spins. It’s a truly impressive turn, and Wilde really puts herself through the wringer to expose Sadie’s bottomless well of grief, rage, and self-loathing. It feels ego-free in a way that few actors of Wilde’s status are capable of, and hopefully we’ll see her tackle more roles of this calibre and complexity in the future.
A bleak, challenging, and angry piece of cinema, A Vigilante uses familiar genre tropes to explore uncomfortable truths. Which is, to be fair, an old trick, but one we never get tired of.