Review: A Vigilante Is a Revenge Film with Delusions of Grandeur

It conspicuously tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess.

A Vigilante
Photo: Saban Films

Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess, operating less as an action thriller than as a kitchen-sink character study. Sadie (Olivia Wilde) is a young woman who’s clearly been wronged, judging by the scars on her back and crying fits that suggest someone in the throes of PTSD. In what almost appears to be a form of therapy, Sadie helps women and children escape domestic abuse, running husbands and negligent mothers off with physical action, sometimes after forcing the predators to sign much of their net worth over to the aggrieved parties. In other words, Sadie is an Equalizer. However, Daggar-Nickson’s violent scenes are pointedly leached of the nightmarish snap of the set pieces of Antoine Fuqua’s Equalizer films.

The Equalizer and its sequel are less concerned with notions of justice than with providing the narcotic thrill of violence as wrought by an intensely charismatic actor. By contrast, A Vigilante foregrounds the pain of victims who’re usually reduced by revenge movies to inciting incidents. This film’s violence occurs in sharp, unpleasant bursts, and offers neither Sadie nor the audience relief. Daggar-Nickson lingers instead on the faces of battered women, particularly those in the support group that Sadie attends. The women are poignant, often whispering as if they’re still locked in the terrifying vice of their tormentors.

In case viewers miss the intensity of A Vigilante’s virtuousness, Daggar-Nickson also favors close-ups with hard lightning and landscapes that are rife with snow, sterile highways, and dead trees. Any sign of pleasure or life would compromise the filmmaker’s earnest devotion to hopelessness and trauma. Sadie isn’t even allowed to fleetingly enjoy the first sip of a bourbon that she orders in a bar that is, of course, sleazy and uninviting.

A Vigilante’s women and children may not be utilized as pawns for an action scenario, but it’s reductive how the film’s victims here are defined only by how they’ve been violated. Sadie is no exception to this rule, and we’re meant to unquestioningly champion her exploits in a manner that’s ultimately familiar of the manipulations of less self-conscious genre cinema, which usually offers at least the nominal value of disreputable excitement. A Vigilante sucks all the thrills out of a thriller, and offers nothing else to fill the void.

The irony of the film is that Wilde may have had a better role if she’d been allowed to indulge her inner bloodlust, as Denzel Washington did in the Equalizer films. In the end, Daggar-Nickson’s sermonizing becomes a kind of straitjacket. Wilde is a terrific actor, and it’s perverse to watch her whittle down her expressiveness so that Daggar-Nickson may make a theoretically “realist” genre flick. Wilde has one startling moment in A Vigilante, in which Sadie, after putting on makeup as she prepares for one of her equalizing campaigns, smiles with a manic quality that suggests both glee and madness. This brief scene evinces an originality, and a curiosity about Sadie’s inner life, that’s otherwise missing from the film.

Score: 
 Cast: Olivia Wilde, Morgan Spector, Tonye Patano, Betsy Aidem, C.J. Wilson, Judy Marte, Kyle Catlett, Olivia Gilliatt, Cheryse Dyllan  Director: Sarah Daggar-Nickson  Screenwriter: Sarah Daggar-Nickson  Distributor: Saban Films  Running Time: 91 min  Rating: R  Year: 2018  Buy: Video

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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