Finding strength in subtlety, Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante begins with a single tearful voicemail. “I have two children who come home at 4:00, and I don’t want them to get hurt,” an unnamed woman barely brings herself to mutter into the receiver, “He’ll hurt them if I leave.” Daggar-Nickson then devotes her feature directorial debut to standing up for this woman and many victims like her, not by offering a simplistic eye-for-an-eye shot at revenge, but by setting them on the prolonged and tedious path toward healing.
Sadie (Olivia Wilde) has been put through the ringer. Once the sufferer of domestic assault, she has decided to mold her trauma into justice for other abused women, ridding the victims’ violent spouses while working her way toward doing the same for her own (Morgan Spector). In one crippling blow, Sadie aims to exact upon these men in a single afternoon the unrelenting pain they’ve caused countless women over a lifetime.
Wilde is nothing short of a powerhouse in A Vigilante. Through Sadie, we see the monumental toll this life of standing up for the powerless continues to take on her. There’s the physical anguish of combat training and the moral weight of inflicting brutality on others, sure, but the true cost resides in the emotional labor of stepping into the abused’s shoes. In a flash of poignant ingenuity, director Daggar-Nickson intersperses lengthy stories from victims of domestic violence in support group within the revenge sequences, preventing the retributions to become exploitative. They are firmly grounded in the harsh reality of the situation rather than playing up the bloodshed. We needn’t witness the atrocities that these women have been subjected to for them to be validated; Daggar-Nickson demands that we take them at their word.
Revenge fantasies — even those with seemingly the purest of intentions
— often fall flat because they lean so far into overt escapism they ignore their story’s inherent human component. A Vigilante appears to be taking it upon itself to single-handedly right this wrong. There are moments of grim savagery, but they aren’t delivered in a way that entertains. This isn’t Death Wish. Rather than simply romanticizing the gruesome vengeance unfolding in the background, Daggar-Nickson focuses on the complex emotional cocktail the avenged victims — as well as Sadie herself — are forced to swallow when they watch their abusive husbands get their comeuppance. It’s at that point they begin to unpack their trauma, finding therapy in destruction, in verbalizing their pain, or merely by taking a moment to recalibrate their trajectory moving forward.
A Vigilante could have easily played out like an arthouse Girl with the Dragon Tattoo knockoff, or a sloppy revenge thriller that disguises toxic masculinity in the package of a female protagonist (looking at you, Peppermint). Instead, it is a delicate and clever study of lasting scars both inside and out. Skillfully straddling the line between mourning and hope, A Vigilante delivers a precious commodity we too rarely see at the movies: sincerity. This is the kind of sleek, devastating character piece that indie directors build entire careers upon.
We haven’t seen the last of Sarah Daggar-Nickson. Not by a long shot.