The first film I ever saw at the South by Southwest Film Festival was The Incredible Burt Wonderstone which was, in a word, “dog crap.” Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, and Olivia Wilde were in attendance to try to make the audience excited, which both Carell and Carrey failed to accomplish. When it came Wilde’s turn to address the attendees, she basically said, “It’s good this movie is playing here because Austin is fun and this is a fun movie.” In other words, “Expect nothing from this film other than a few chuckles.” Five years later, I felt as though I owed it to Wilde and her honesty to see her starring turn in A Vigilante, a compelling revenge thriller that shows emotional trauma is often more difficult to overcome than physical wounds.
Any time that Sadie (Wilde) receives a voicemail that includes a very specific phrase, she begins preparing for how to take down her next target. Rather than a cold-blooded assassin who utilizes her skills to eradicate adversaries, Sadie makes domestic abusers pay for the destruction they’ve brought upon their loved ones, both dealing out physical punishment on her targets and ensuring financial safety for their families. Despite how well she can help solve the problems of others, Sadie struggles with the abuser in her own life, as her husband caused irreparable damage to their family before disappearing into the woods. If she hopes to have any semblance of a life moving forward, Sadie must confront her past, no matter what damage it takes on her physically and mentally.
While I may not have been a fan of Burt Wonderstone, Wilde is a complete badass in A Vigilante. She is calm, collected, and has no problem dishing out massive beatdowns to scummy assholes to the delight of audiences. What makes the film compelling is that it’s far from the male-driven orgy of violence of John Wick or Death Wish, but a more calculated delivery of the deserved punishment, oftentimes with the ass-kickings taking place off-screen. The film opens with Wilde completely unleashing blow after blow on a heavy bag, merely teasing the power she possesses. In her first conflict, we see only one or two hits before cutting to a bruised, bloody, and battered victim, robbing audiences of witnessing the extent of Sadie’s wrath. This may leave some audiences disappointed, but it’s just one, of many, reminders that this isn’t the story of a woman driven by vengeance so much as a story about a woman hoping to help others heal from their pain.
Revenge thrillers have never typically been “my thing,” so the moments in which Sadie showed restraint or was emotionally triggered and reduced to tears I would find myself wishing for a badass fight scene to break out, yet I’m unsure whether that was my conditioning to seeing those sequences playing out in other films that made me crave that chaos or if the story itself had earned it. Given the saturation of men kicking butts to avenge a loved one in cinema, I can only assume writer/director Sarah Daggar-Nickson was playing with the subgenre’s tropes and circumvented expectations to show the devastating emotional consequences of trauma that extends past one dude being mopey in the shower before jumping into a training montage.
Despite the film not delivering full-fledged physical mayhem, a compelling story unfolds about Sadie and how she channels the desperation she feels in her own life and how she uses her loss to motivate her to help others. Rather than trying to reconstruct her own life, she moves from motel room to motel room, with the filmmaker using flashbacks to women recounting stories of abuse in a support group to ground the audience in the horrifying realities of domestic violence. Many of these sequences allow Wilde to show that she not only could handle the task of a revenge thriller physically, but could also convey the horrifying details of her past effectively with recollections that felt all too real.
The final product of A Vigilante may have left me feeling indifferent, but I commend the places Daggar-Nickson took the typically predictable story to deliver a fresh take on the revenge thriller that leans more into the emotional aftermath of the everyday violence that thousands of women suffer through on a daily basis, while also letting Wilde be a complete badass. I have no doubt that the film will be far more effective to other viewers and possibly even serve as a catalyst to motivate audiences to make changes in their own life, which typical male-driven revenge movies rarely do. The film is a powerful debut feature film from Daggar-Nickson and I’ll be sure to keep my eyes out for her next project while also crossing my fingers that Wilde returns to another action-oriented role soon.
Wolfman Moon Scale