A Vigilante first published by Sight & Sound, June 2018
Review: “We get scared, start to feel like there’s no escape,” says Miss Beverley (Tonye Patano), a counsellor at a support group for abused women. “You’re confused, and don’t know what’s real and what’s not real.” Beverley is describing the state of disorientation in gaslit, manipulated, brutalised women before they find their ‘leaving moment’ and manage to get away from their partner. Her words also, in their way, serve to describe the experience of watching writer/director Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s feature debut A Vigilante, which is all at once a realist exposé on the trauma of abusive relationships, and a wish-fulfilment fantasy in the revenge genre.
Tying these two elements together is Sadie (Olivia Wilde, giving a raw, committed performance), herself a deeply conflicted character: on the one hand, she is a driven, determined vigilante who, when summoned by coded requests, intervenes to rescue prisoners of dysfunctional domestic situations, facilitating their leaving moments; on the other, her own failure to make a clean break from an abusive relationship has left her deeply damaged (both psychologically and physically). Accordingly, when Sadie is not coolly confronting and beating down abusers (of either gender), she is alone in dingy motel rooms, having panic attacks, and sleeping with a knife under her pillow. Sadie is pitched somewhere between Thana from Ms. 45 (1981), Joe from You Were Never Really Here (2017) and Batman (Sadie too is summoned by signals, does her vigilante work in disguise, and as a rule does not kill) – but she is also grounded by the upsetting plausibility of the domestic situations into which she violently interposes, and by her own PTSD breakdowns which prevent her from ever seeming superhuman in her otherwise cinematic vengeance. Operating completely alone, she lives out of a suitcase and has taught herself Krev Maga from a borrowed text book.
In part to reflect Sadie’s own addled state and the scars and fractures all over her body, the narrative of A Vigilante is itself fragmented, intercutting scenes of Sadie engaged in recovery missions with (earlier) scenes where, in group sessions with Beverley and other women, she gradually acknowledges her own horrific past and decides what she wants to do and who she wants to be. This transformation can only be complete once she has addressed her own unresolved history, and accordingly the last third of the film realises her belated confrontation with her own abusive husband (Morgan Spector), in harrowing scenes that encapsulate, through genre tropes, the stacked power dynamics in such a relationship – the sense of entrapment and imprisonment, the tip-toeing game of cat and mouse, the free use of manipulation and force – before aggressively turning the tables on the abuser. Whether this is real or not, it is a cinematic way of presenting precisely the issue that is the principal concern of A Vigilante, giving domestic abuse a form which, though monstrous, is also capable of being slain. Perhaps that is escapist fantasy, but Sadie’s day-to-day survivalism is therapeutic, even salutary.
Synopsis: Northeastern New York, now. When Sadie tried to escape her controlling husband after ten years of physical abuse, he slashed her back repeatedly with a knife, and then murdered their young son Cody. Her husband disappears, and with his debts emerging and their home being foreclosed, broken Sadie is left only with scars, grief and guilt. After hearing stories of other abused women in therapy sessions, the traumatised, grief-stricken Sadie finally tells her own, and decides to become a vigilante, answering coded calls from a network of trapped women and children to intervene violently so that they can have smoother ‘leaving moments’ than she had. Sadie teaches herself Krev Maga from a manual, and travels incognita from motel to motel, living out of a suitcase and occasionally fighting off unwanted attention from would-be rapists. Between recovery missions for which she reluctantly accepts petty cash or food as payment, Sadie systematically searches the wintry Adirondack mountains, where she suspects her survivalist husband is hiding out.
He finds her first, tracking her back to her motel room and knocking her out. Sadie wakes bound in his cabin, and though managing to escape her bonds, hesitates to kill him with a knife and is overpowered once more. Her arm broken, Sadie flees to an empty building, bandages and composes herself, and confronts her husband, killing him.
Sadie’s lawyer informs her that her husband’s body has been found, and she will now get his life insurance, letting her now work pro bono.