A Vigilante (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A female avenger against domestic violence

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“A Vigilante” is a small but fascinating drama about one troubled woman who chooses a rather drastic way of fighting against domestic violence. While firmly sticking to its austere attitude, the movie works as a restrained but intense character study with subtle human touches to be appreciated, and we come to understand and emphasize with its heroine even while we mostly observe her from the distance.

When we are introduced to Sadie (Olivia Wilde) at the beginning of the film, she is preparing for her latest job, and the movie calmly and clinically depicts how she does her unpleasant but necessary job step by step. Once she is fully prepared, she goes to a house where her latest client, a married woman who has been abused by her husband for years, lives, and she meets her client’s abusive husband when he returns to the house. Shortly after he makes a very big mistake of underestimating her, we see him forced to follow every demand of hers, and her client, who looks a lot more relieved than before as being totally free from her husband, thanks Sadie a lot while also paying her some cash.

Although it seems to be often emotionally exhausting for her to commit her cold, merciless violence on her targets, Sadie keeps going whenever she gets a call for help. While most of her targets are men, she does not make any exception at all when she happens to handle the situation involved with a mother who has been not so good to her two children, and we accordingly get another uncomfortable moment of violence.

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Via a series of flashback scenes, the movie gradually reveals what has been fueling Sadie’s violent tendency. When we see her attending a meeting held at a shelter for female abuse survivors, she mostly remains quiet and distant while other women at the meeting recount their painful experience of abuse one by one, but, eventually, she comes to confide to others on what happened to her and her dear son some time ago, and that is the most harrowing moment in the film.

When one of her fellow abuse survivors tells her that she should be more active in coping with her pain and trauma instead of just nursing them passively, Sadie comes to decide that she really should do something for healing herself. After leaving the shelter, she promptly begins to operate as a vigilante for those abused people out there, and she also attempts to get a personal closure for herself through tracking down her husband, who disappeared right after that terrible incident and is probably hiding somewhere.

Now some of you will have a pretty good idea on where the story is going, but the movie surprises us as adamantly avoiding any chance of cheap thrill or catharsis. While there are several tense moments during its last act as expected, the movie dryly maintains its low-key tone without any gratuitous moment, and the overall result is as impressively stoic as Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” (2017), which is incidentally another brutal and intense movie about a violent and traumatized figure.

As a result, we come to focus more on its heroine’s damaged state of mind, and Olivia Wilde, who drew my attention for the first time with her good supporting performance in TV drama series “House”, delivers a solid performance which conveys well whatever is churning behind her character’s detached façade. While ably imbuing her character with considerable determination and physicality as demanded, Wilde also did a commendable job of subtly revealing her character’s vulnerability, and she is particularly convincing during a brief but striking scene where her character cannot help but become helpless in front of the origin of her pain and trauma. No matter how much Sadie has tried to overcome her pain and trauma, it ultimately turns out that her old mindset does not die easily, and we come to cringe a lot as watching what happens next because of that.

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The movie is the first feature film directed by director/writer Sarah Dagger-Nickson. She only made two short films before making this film, but she shows here that she is a competent filmmaker who knows how to hold our attention via mood and storytelling. Never looking deficient in technical aspects, the movie is also slick and efficient in its economical storytelling, and I especially appreciate how a certain recurring aural detail is deftly utilized throughout the film for a modest but haunting dramatic effect.

In addition, Dagger-Nickson assembles a number of good performers around Wilde. While Betsy Aidem and C.J. Wilson are effective in their brief appearance during the early part of the movie, Tonye Patano gives a gentle and thoughtful performance as a caring counselor for Sadie and other female abuse survivors, and Morgan Spector brings chilly creepiness to his supporting character.

Although it received lots of praises from critics after it was shown at the South by Southwest Film Festival early in last year, “A Vigilante” did not get much attention when it was released in last month in US, and that is a shame considering the substantial achievement by Dagger-Nixon and her cast and crew members. Yes, it is probably a bit too dry and tough for some of you, but it is still worthwhile to watch on the whole for several good reasons including Wilde’s electrifying performance, and you will not be disappointed if you are looking for something different.

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