In one of the many scenes of churning fear and rage that make up “A Vigilante,” Sadie (Olivia Wilde), a crime-fighting desperado in upstate New York, sits in the living room of a respectable-looking middle-aged man and explains to him how things are going to be. She’s wearing a disguise — she has given herself the spirit-gum wrinkles and fuddy-duddy clothing of a primly officious lawyer — but there’s nothing concealed about her words. With an air of ice-cold calm, she orders the man to sign over three-quarters of his savings and quit his finance job, and to leave the home he’s sitting in forever. The movie then cuts to the end of the episode, when he’s a bloody mess, skulking out of the house with his life and dignity and future in tatters.
The man is a domestic abuser; Sadie has arrived to save — and liberate — his wife, with an attitude of pitiless wrath that leaves no room for doubt. She’s exactly what the film’s title says she is: an avenger who takes the law into her own hands, transforming herself into a brutally righteous underground heroine.
Yet Sarah Daggar-Nickson, the audaciously gifted writer-director of “A Vigilante,” hasn’t just some made glib feminine flip-flop of a Charles Bronson film. If you watch a movie like “Death Wish” (not the recent Bruce Willis remake, which was so smirky-slick it left no traces, but the down-and-dirty Bronson original), it’s easy to get onto the wavelength of a man prowling the night, shooting muggers with a handgun, and still be appalled by what the film is saying: that an ordinary citizen has the right to be an executioner.
“A Vigilante” operates in a zone that’s less demagogic and more morally precise. Sadie doesn’t kill her victims, and despite the echo of her name, she isn’t a sadist; she’s not a blood fundamentalist seeking payback. She’s out to rescue women who are trapped in a living nightmare, and by cutting their abusers loose she achieves a rough justice.
She is also a torn and fragmented human being, baptized in anguish, and Olivia Wilde’s nakedly emotional performance places her in a different category from all the male movie vigilantes (Bronson, Statham, etc.), or even the women like Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” films, who’ve exacted vengeance upon the evildoers who so deserve it. Sadie is a domestic-abuse survivor, and the movie, which unfolds with a prismatic time-leap structure that immerses us in every moment, is a rivetingly austere psychodrama that shows the audience what, exactly, is going on inside the heart and mind of someone who would dare to take on the role of living-room shadow warrior. Away from her mission, living out of cheap motels, Sadie weeps and rages, re-experiencing the trauma she suffered. Wilde shows you the place where terror and fury go through the looking glass and are alchemized into action.
We see Sadie in a support group, buried under the shyness of her despair, and after a while you realize that this is the “before” picture. Only later does she begin to figure out that with some Krav Maga training and tossed-together costumes, she can turn being a freelance vigilante into a kind of livelihood. Not all her victims are men; there’s one encounter with a sick puppy of a mother, who’s raising her two kids as prisoners, that’s more disturbing than anything in “Room.”
That said, “A Vigilante” is very much a myth of our time, dramatizing the rage that too many women have felt they needed to suppress. That’s why the movie has a solid shot to connect with art-house audiences. As an actress, Olivia Wilde has been something of a shape-shifter, but in this movie she seems to be burning through all her previous roles to find something essential. She grabs hold of the spectacle of agonized female anger, and does it with a grace and power that easily matches that of Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
As galvanizing as Wilde is, it’s Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s intensity of skill as a filmmaker that brings “A Vigilante” to life. This is her first feature, and she executes it with an economy of means that’s highly detailed, suspenseful, and emotionally direct. The Kingston, N.Y., setting is part of it — it’s just the kind of desultory place where you feel a mystery vigilante could thrive in the shadows. Sadie’s backstory isn’t merely frightening, it’s tragic (she lost her child), and the film leads, inexorably, to her confrontation with her own abusive husband, whom she has spent a long time searching for. He’s played by Morgan Spector, in a performance that’s rich enough to circumvent a number of clichés about domestic abusers. This highly cultivated man, with his soft surface, literally believes that violence, and control, are forms of love, and that’s the horror of it. It’s why he, and everyone like him, must be stopped. “A Vigilante” is something to see: the rare movie in which lone justice offers a catharsis that could be described as honest.