A Vigilante (2018) - Sarah Daggar-Nickson
Two things are missing from Sarah Daggar-Nickson's excellent debut A Vigilante. Violence towards women and gratuitously violent scenes of retribution. The absence of both make A Vigilante not only a better film than most vigilante styled thrillers but a better, more considered film overall.
Calling your film A Vigilante sets up certain expectations and positions the film in a long history of vengeance based films. It feels entirely intentional, especially the indefinite article. It feels important, as the story unfolds, that the film is called A Vigilante, not The Vigilante, or even just Vigilante. The film walks a delicate balance, until its final act, of never really letting us into who this character is. Although we slowly learn a little about her - the domestic abuse she suffered, the circumstances which led her to break free of the oppression and that which set her on a course of vigilantism - there is a constant distance created by the style of the film and way the character interacts with both victims and abusers. She must remain a blank slate, unattached, passive and most importantly unemotional. But the film intentionally keeps us a distance. This woman, who we learn is called Sadie (a very important moment for her and the film it eventually turns out), is just another victim of domestic abuse. What separates her from the other victims is that she has taken it upon herself to free women from the same situations she found herself in.
The film's greatest strength is Olivia Wilde's performance as the titular vigilante Sadie. The film follows her intimately and she appears in every scene, and with a few notable exceptions, every shot. Despite the intimacy of the performances, Wilde walks a delicate line between being impassive yet deeply affected by both her experience and the experiences of those she helps. Wilde's performance is muscular, ferocious yet controlled and deeply emotional. Her "performances" as a vigilante take immense amounts of self-control and although she never has a crisis of confidence over her actions the weight of her own experience and those she liberates regularly get the better of her. Sadie sports a range of disguises as she comes in and out of the lives of abused women. A secretive network of abused women quietly share Sadie's details and she appears, in disguise to exact justice on these abusers (for they are not always men) for food or small amounts of money. She longs for the time she can offer these services for free.
Daggar-Nickson's style is another of the film's many strengths. The film is set against a cold, grey and wintry backdrop - eventually ending in a snow-covered forest. The cold aesthetic is reflected in Sadie's mentality and approach to her work. This is a cold, unforgiving world. It also adds an understated naturalism to proceedings. This is a film which is not reaching for the fantastical. It's very much set in a grounded world. As such you feel the risk and vulnerability of Sadie, even though she seems adept at surviving, methodical in her approach and rarely underestimating her prey. A few moments almost undermine this approach, particularly an aside when Sadie visits a bar and is set upon by three drunken men. Daggar-Nickson's point is made clearly and bluntly. The world is hostile towards women, and its landscape is structured around male environments. Environments which are always going to be dangerous for women. It's one of the few moments where the film loses sight of its naturalism and understatement. The film's big misstep comes in the finale when much of the approach, so effective throughout, is disregarded as she comes face up to her past and her own experiences of abuse.
A Vigilante is categorically not an exploitation film. Despite the history and pedigree to which the film belongs, it avoids and steers clear of many of the genre tropes. This is not a film with any intention of reveling in violence - be that against women or the men who abuse them. In fact, the film notably cuts away when the promise of violence inherent in this genre threatens to break out. When violence does erupt it's over almost before it starts or the focus is on the consequences rather than the act. There is a version of this film where Daggar-Nickson could have chosen to portray the violence with the naturalism she delivers in the rest of the film. But Daggar-Nickson does not want A Vigilante to be about violence. Her focus is clearly on its victims. One scene sees her rescuing two children from an abusive mother and on discovering one of the sons locked in a bathroom is physically stopped in her tracks at the horror she experiences. But we never see it. For Daggar-Nickson there is no way of showing violence that isn't on some level exploitative.
Where she does confront abuse is in the therapy sessions where women get to retell their experiences. These sequences are shot straight on with the women telling the camera (and by extension us) directly of the horrors they've endured. This is a clear statement from Daggar-Nickson. She wants us to hear. She wants us to know. It's a confrontational approach but one which works admirably for the film. And the stories are overwhelming. It also helps us to understand Sadie's motivations while never explicitly endorsing them. Vigilante films rarely include the authorities, and if they do it's usually to demonstrate the incapabilities of their services to address and solve the films' central problems. Here the police are notable by their absence. There is never police presence in these women's lives, and neither are they present as force risk of shutting down Sadie's vigilantism. The film is explicitly telling us that this woman is these women's only hope of salvation. And at no point does the film challenge this perception.
If the film does have a flaw it's in the final act. As we learn about Sadie's own abuse we gradually begin to form an image of her life and the man who tormented her. It makes sense that she should have to face up to this past. Part of her journey must be to overcome her own tormentor, but when that moment arrives it lands somewhat flat. Both her husband (unnamed in the credits) and their eventual and inevitable clash felt unsatisfying. He lacks the ordinariness or the monstrousness you might expect, instead of falling somewhere in between. The setting, a wintry forest, which alludes to his survivalist lifestyle and therefore hints at his aggressive, dominance never feels fully formed or fleshed out and I would have preferred a version where he remains either an enigma or completely offscreen. The final moments also have a mildly annoying neatness to them.
A Vigilante is an exceptional directorial debut from Sarah Daggar-Nickson which has a committed clarity of vision thanks to a sharp script, taut directing and an incredible performance by Olivia Wilde. It announces Daggar-Nickson as a major new voice.