One of this year’s most relevant movies had its premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin. Written and directed by Sarah Daggar-Nickson, it stars Olivia Wilde as the titular vigilante, a woman that escaped her abusive marriage and then goes on to help others do the same.
Sadie (Olivia Wilde) is good with makeup. She had to learn it to cover the bruises and injuries she suffered from her abusive husband (Morgan Spector). Only after a devastating tragedy is she able to escape her torment, but is always fearful that he might return. Now she uses makeup to disguise herself and hide from her ex. After spending some time in a support group and listening to other women’s horrific stories, she decides to take control and fight back. She obsessively learns Krav Maga, a form of martial arts designed to overpower opponents that are bigger and stronger, which makes it ideal for women. Afterward, the makeup she wears is to avoid recognition because she fights the oppressors just as brutally as they have treated their helpless wives, or in one case, their children. However, she is still haunted by her own trauma, and she knows the only way to overcome it is to face it.
This film is a one-woman show by Olivia Wilde, and she gives it everything she has. Her Sadie is strong, powerful, and confident, having no problems beating up an abusive husband in front of his wife. However, that is just one side of her, and in her own marriage she was just as frightened and helpless as the women she now fights for. Wilde’s character is exactly the kind of women we need to see more often in movies. She is so powerful, not despite but because of her vulnerabilities, and Wilde will receive lots of praise for this career-best performance once this important film finds a distributor and hits theaters.
While Wilde easily carries the movie on her shoulders, as leading actress but also as a producer, it’s another strong woman that enables her – director and writer Sarah Daggar-Nickson. Her movie is one of the most ambitious and skillfully executed debuts I’ve ever seen. The way she handles the non-linear story-line, the unflinching depiction of abuse and her actors, many of whom first-timers themselves, make her already look like a veteran.
Her script is well-researched and manages to keep the balance between a hard-boiled revenge thriller, a là “Death Wish,” (but with a working moral compass) and deeply moving drama like “Blue Valentine” or “Room.” Daggar-Nickson spent a lot of time with abused women, and some of them even agreed to appear on screen in Sadie’s support group to tell their own, true stories. In these scenes, the viewer forgets they are watching a feature film but rather a devastating-yet-moving documentary. The movie is at times painful to watch, but it’s the kind that you will keep thinking about long after you’ve left the theater.
Lastly, Morgan Specter’s portrayal of the husband is complex and his motivations and thoughts are well-portrayed. While his actions couldn’t be more despicable, he is a well-written character that goes beyond clichés and feels gruesomely authentic. His own helplessness and pathologic jealousy lead him down a violent path, and Spector portrays the nameless husband with precise nuances. This highly cultivated man isn’t just a dark monster. He thinks that he acts out of love, but the film does a great job exposing his obsessiveness and a selfish need to control others. It would have been easy to portray him as the ultimate evil, but Daggar-Nickson decided for a more ambivalent character, which ultimately strengthens the movie.
“A Vigilante” is not only an important film that spotlights the uncomfortable and underrepresented topic of domestic abuse, but it also comes at a time when female empowerment, equal rights, and the calling out of abusive behavior are highly discussed topics, which will definitely contribute to its success. But this movie isn’t jumping on the bandwagon to profit from #metoo. Daggar-Nickson has something to say, and she found the perfect messenger in Olivia Wilde. Together they will open eyes, and as the young director said in a Q&A after the movie, “If only one person can be saved through this movie, it was worth the effort.” And Wilde stepped in, “It’s about the abuse of power. And what we’re sensing right now is we’ve had enough of that.”
That said, there is still not enough of excellent movies like “A Vigilante.”
A Vigilante (2018)
Written & directed by Sarah Daggar-Nickson
With Olivia Wilde, Morgan Spector, Betsy Aidem, C.J. Wilson, Tonye Patano
Cinematography by Alan McIntyre Smith
91 min, not yet rated