A Vigilante Review [SXSW 2018]

Matt Donato

Reviewed by:
On March 15, 2018
Last modified:March 16, 2018


A Vigilante succeeds not by exploiting torture, but instead shifting focus to Olivia Wilde's painful, so very real performance.

A Vigilante Review [SXSW 2018]

A Vigilante is one bitter taste of gender-fueled revenge that doesn’t immediately kick-you-in-the-teeth, yet still packs its punches in small but measured doses. I applaud the film Sarah Daggar-Nickson created versus the one preconceptions made me assume. Women protagonists in these positions are usually subjected to unspeakably demeaning atrocities (shown to viewers) – hence why “rape revenge” is an entire subgenre – but Nickson doesn’t require such instigation. Enter a grieving female forced into action, failed by systems and teachings ingrained in our societal constructs that make victims out of the innocent. You’ll get your revenge here, but more importantly, the message that comes along with it. Harrowingly doled out, bloody-knuckled and raw as hell.

This isn’t I Spit On Your Grave. Nickson’s “hero” survives a hauntingly attainable catalyst that leads to salvation for many more current and would-be casualties. Cinematography and direction stress what’s most important, which is anything but a cheap slasher flick with “feminist” misinterpretations.

Olivia Wilde stars as Sadie, who we meet as a protector of battered women. She tried going to group therapy after her own incident ended with traumatic results, but words could only do so much. Now she passes her information to females in similar situations – except she intervenes before anything worse can happen. Their husband/boyfriend – whoever is doing the abusing – comes home, is surprised by Sadie (Krav Maga/constant trainer/survivalist) and “convinced” to leave. The client always left with her house, money and promise of no retaliation, Sadie only requesting food and enough cash until the next job. A certifiable guardian of the unheard, until Sadie’s own past comes back with its own vengeance in mind.

As you’ve read, Sadie is not a murderer as far as her jobs go. She will kill – gladly, as she informs her marks – but targets are given ample opportunity to leave willingly. Evil men are put in their place and stripped of what they don’t deserve, Nickson not needing gross-out gore or outrageous death sequences to make a point. It’s a tragic yet emboldened reassurance for women who continually find themselves trapped by words like “love,” devoted to husbands or boyfriends who need control over them – not a relationship. Yet they stay, because of societal pressures or manipulative words or a lack of empathy. Sadie is, herself, hope in a time where women must depend on each other – and need to – which is only accentuated by the lack of torture-porn emphasis. Punishment delivered, message received.

This brings us to the embattled Wilde, who packs so much pain and suffering into a form that unleashes stone-dead savagery. Whether she’s beating the stuffing out of her punching bag or knocking the next bastard husband down with a swift throat chop, Wilde’s eyes blaze like infernos that can never be extinguished. Broken by her past, but not letting that stop her from expelling demons in “productive” ways. So much sorrow and anger and self-guilt bursting out of every scene, genuinely upset by her inability to complete “jobs” for free. Male counterparts in similar roles would sleepwalk and grit their way through such arcs, but Wilde’s complexities are far more engaging even without an obsessive devotion to action set pieces.

As A Vigilante pushes forward, we learn more about Sadie’s own tragedy and how her husband (Morgan Spector) forever extinguished her soulful flame (not to be spoiled). Sadie finds herself forced into captive scenarios, faced with an equal adversary in the man who taught her every survival technique she knows (the same camping trips on which he’d also cause her harm). It’s a chilly standoff, Nickson fully aware of deserved redemption but also what finality means and what’s necessary for closure – Sadie’s “peace of mind” (relative) or a slaughtery payoff where said asshole gets his balls chopped off and stuffed up his own ass (or something similarly vile)? Nickson’s restraint and focus in these moments make for a revenge watch that’s a cut above generic takes on infinitely more involved themes – so smart about what she does and doesn’t show.

A Vigilante will be remembered for what it says about female unification, domestic abuse and what every human deserves in life – not action, not bloody retribution. Death Wish is just the most recent attempt, but plenty of other films miss the point about what makes these scenarios so grave, so devastating (re: any of the I Spit On Your Grave sequels). A film so understated, silent for long stretches of time where Olivia Wilde works her body ragged just to burn even an ounce of rage that boils inside her. A woman mistreated, made to feel like she’s the issue, who weaponizes her own hatred – created by and representative of our times.

Looks like time’s up.

A Vigilante Review [SXSW 2018]

A Vigilante succeeds not by exploiting torture, but instead shifting focus to Olivia Wilde's painful, so very real performance.