By Jake Watt
30th June 2018

In director Sarah Daggar-Nickson's feature debut, Olivia Wilde ('Tron: Legacy', 'Her') is Sadie, a scarred abuse survivor who now works as a fixer (think Denzel Washington in Antoine Fuqua's 'The Equalizer') for women living in the shadow of domestic violence, who contact her by leaving a voicemail with a coded phrase.

Sadie embraces violence as means of achieving her objectives, although she is not a murderer as far as her jobs go. She is prepared to kill - with relish, as she informs a man whose throat she punches in the opening scenes - but her targets are given plenty of opportunities to leave of their own volition as long as they leave behind what they don't deserve (homes, money, family).

Wilde turns in an impressive, career-best performance. Whether Sadie is laying into her punching bag, holding a plank pose until sweat streams down her face or holding a literal plank of wood to thrash would-be rapists, Wilde's eyes blaze coldly with rage-bordering-on-mania. At times, 'A Vigilante' nearly presents Sadie as a street-level antihero from a comic book (writer Garth Ennis' run on Marvel's 'The Punisher', which not only featured a blonde female version of the titular vigilante seeking to avenge her history of domestic abuse, but also a novel way of hiding a razor-blade, will loom largely in the minds of nerds).


Male counterparts in similar roles would look disinterested (Bruce Willis' somnambulistic turn in Eli Roth's 'Death Wish'), or square their jaw purposefully (Kevin Bacon in James Wan's 'Death Sentence') as they go about delivering justice, but Wilde's nuanced take on Sadie's psychology is far more engaging without any 'Kill Bill'-style action set pieces or cars exploding in slo-mo.

Refreshingly, 'A Vigilante' is almost completely disinterested in depicting violence on screen (like the borderline torture porn of Daniel Barber's 'Harry Brown'), instead preferring to explore its impact. We see Sadie walk a bruised and bleeding abuser through the front door of his house with a murmured threat, but we are never shown the beating. An arm is bent over a piece of wood, but we never see the foot stamping down to break the limb, we only hear the resulting screams. The standout example occurs when Sadie is called to rescue two young boys from their abusive mother, who keeps them padlocked in a room in their apartment when she's not torturing them or sending them for groceries. Although we never see inside of the child's room, Wilde's near-silent reaction - recoiling, hand to her mouth, and later crying in her car - speaks volumes.

The crisp cinematography via Alan McIntyre Smith and long, artfully composed shots highlight what is most important, which is anything but a B-grade exploitation flick with timely "feminist" aspirations.

The emotional damage wrought upon the survivors and their healing process is mostly portrayed via confession at a support group (where a lot of the film's most powerful acting moments can be found) and the literal destruction of the home they shared with their partner. Watching Sadie terrify their abuser is as close to resolution as these survivors will ever get, but it's ultimately a relief. Sadie, however, is pushed into confronting the dangerous survivalist husband that she's spent the movie searching for in the mountains of upstate New York. Morgan Spector's portrayal avoids the gruff woodsman stereotype - instead he's an unnamed, softly spoken embodiment of toxic masculinity, negging Sadie over the ruination of their family unit and still attempting to exert control over her.

As the movie reveals itself (slightly confusingly) in a scattered, non-chronological fashion, 'A Vigilante' begins to share similar tone and structure to Lynne Ramsay's 'You Were Never Really Here'. The crisp cinematography via Alan McIntyre Smith and long, artfully composed shots highlight what is most important, which is anything but a B-grade exploitation flick with timely "feminist" aspirations (see: Michael Apted's J-Lo-starring 'Enough' and Neil Jordan's 'The Brave One').

The film's ending doesn't quite gel with the rest of 'A Vigilante' as it shifts gear into a more conventional action picture, with less nuance and more cat-and-mouse showdowns. While this undermines some of the table setting the film does early on, it never completely upsets it.

Intense, emotional, economically told yet fully-realised, 'A Vigilante' is a debut feature that signals the emergence of a brutally-skilled filmmaking talent in Sarah Daggar-Nickson.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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