The monsters in ‘A Vigilante’ look deceptively ordinary. One wears an everyday business suit and tie; another is dressed in a simple T-shirt and pants, though it’s hard to make out what he’s wearing because he’s trussed up, on his knees, beaten down.
Abusers, each endures the kind of ostensibly righteous retribution that tends to be visited on men by other men in exploitation flicks like ‘Death Wish.’ On occasion, a woman steps into the vigilante role — at times, after she’s raped, as in ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ — seeking personal payback through a violent cleansing that can widen into a feminist critique.
Writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson shrewdly doesn’t lead with politics in ‘A Vigilante,’ instead letting them surface as a matter of course as she fills in the satisfyingly lean, mean story. It centres on Sadie (Olivia Wilde, all in physically), who after fleeing her husband has become a lone-wolf avenger of other abuse victims. They reach her by phone, leaving the same cryptic SOS — “I’m looking out the window, and the trucks won’t stop coming” — before detailing where they live and when it’s safe for Sadie to visit. “I have two children who come home at 4, and I don’t want them to get hurt,” one woman tremulously explains in her message. “He’ll hurt them if I leave.”
Vigilantism is a questionable fantasy of empowerment, but Daggar-Nickson makes her movie (largely) work by keeping everything — her antihero, the registers of violence — austere and persuasively low-key. By the time the story opens, Sadie appears to have been at this vengeance business for some time. She has her routines and her disguises, and a map fixed to the wall. She’s either running or on the hunt; it’s unclear. She lives in what looks like a motel or just the saddest, emptiest of homes, where she sleeps with a large knife under her pillow. Every so often, she starts hyperventilating, spiralling into panic that is eased only by a drawing that she clutches to her like a lover or a child.
Daggar-Nickson pieces together the puzzle of Sadie’s life with some sly misdirection. When the camera isn’t on Sadie pummelling a boxing bag or dispatching another domestic abuser, the story shifts to some women living in what appears to be a halfway house. At first, Sadie seems to be a peripheral presence here as the emphasis remains on the other women, their tears and terrors, as well as the warm, no-nonsense counsellor (Tonye Patano) whose insistent encouragement elegantly helps fill in narrative blanks. When the counsellor looks at all the women — reminding them how they “grabbed that freedom and got out of there” — Sadie and her story movingly shift into sharper focus.
Whether Sadie’s embrace of vengeance is a radical form of therapy, an act of extreme political activism or just a dangerous way to exorcise personal demons remains open to interpretation. Daggar-Nickson gestures in certain directions, but for the most part she avoids deeper, troubling questions about retribution and violence. Instead, she concentrates on the genre basics, as in the movie’s admirably hard-core final faceoff, even as she insists that we keep our attention fixed on Sadie. There’s something galvanising about this woman, but also something agonizing about both her loneliness and the bloody, bruised fists that she keeps throwing — again and again and again.
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‘A Vigilante’ releases in the UAE on May 2.