A taut revenge fantasy that takes the traumatic roots of its crime-fighting spree very seriously, Sarah Daggar-Nickson's A Vigilante casts Olivia Wilde as a woman who narrowly escapes an abusive household, then turns herself into a mysterious champion for others. Putting a deliberately unromantic spin on its wish-fulfillment scenario, the film scratches a genre itch without using it as an excuse, a la Eli Roth's morally bankrupt Death Wish remake, for vicarious sadism. Though its austerity limits commercial appeal, the timely pic will earn support on the fest circuit and would likely fare well in art houses.
For a good stretch of the picture, we know nothing about Wilde's Sadie. She lives in a string of seedy motels, where Spartan physical-training rituals alternate with intense outbursts of PTSD grief. Her phone number is being passed around quietly in domestic-abuse support groups, and callers who use her odd passphrase — "the trucks won't stop coming" — can arrange for her service: When she knows your abuser is home, Sadie will come in wearing a disguise, subdue him with some Krav Maga, and coolly tell him how things are going to be. In one early example, she stands over a bloodied husband as he signs over the house and moves three-quarters of his assets to his wife's new bank account, phones HR to quit his job and says goodbye to his home. At the door, she warns him, "if you bother them I will kill you," stepping in to whisper, "I want to kill you."
As the film lets us piece together her M.O. and observes the pain she's enduring when alone, it listens in on group therapy sessions where other women tell their own stories. In a trickily satisfying way, these sessions will answer some of our questions about who Sadie is and what she's doing, but they don't guarantee that her mission will lead to personal closure. It's not giving anything away to say that Sadie's husband is still alive and in hiding, and that their paths will cross in the picture's chilling climax.
Men's-righters will note, whether it satisfies them or not, that Daggar-Nickson's script acknowledges men aren't the only villains in domestic abuse. In a harrowing episode, Sadie encounters two young boys held prisoner by their neglectful mother. (Focused on the end of abuse, A Vigilante spends little time wondering why monsters do what they do.) A scene between Sadie and the older boy, who immediately bonds with her, speaks movingly to both the character's motivations and the universality of helplessness. Some victims aren't kept under lock and key, but that doesn't mean they aren't captive.
Films about women pushed to the brink of crime or violence are hardly new — from the Pop mayhem of Kill Bill to the high-profile Farrah Fawcett adaptation of The Burning Bed to 9 to 5, they've taken many forms — but this film has a distinctive flavor and is obviously driven by of-its-moment concern. Every generation must rediscover the obvious truth that wives and children (and female employees) aren't the property of men with more power, no matter what tradition or religion might say, and that leaving abusive situations can feel impossible for reasons outsiders don't understand. A Vigilante offers some grim, imaginary satisfactions in support of real survivors who need whatever help we can give.