A Vigilante (4 stars)

A Vigilante

Olivia Wilde is phenomenal in this sucker punch revenge drama from Sarah Daggar-Nickson

Fuelled – and grounded – by an astonishing, animalistic central performance from Olivia Wilde, this feature debut from Australian filmmaker Sarah Daggar-Nickson uses its bare-bones narrative to deliver a sucker punch study of an abused woman taking back control in the most extreme way. While it plays more like genre thriller than deep-dive drama, there's plenty to admire in the way in which director and star have chosen to tell this sadly familiar story.

Wilde is Sadie, a woman who didn't so much survive her abusive husband but find herself unexpectedly free of him following one particularly traumatic event. Ensconced within a women's shelter, she carries the deep wounds of her experiences in the physical scars which riddle her body, but also in her haunted expression, her hunched shoulders, the regular panic attacks which leave her shaking on the floor.

But there's another side to Sadie. She is also something of a vigilante, using her new-found physical strength – acquired through martial arts training – to help other women (and, in one shocking sequence, children) extract themselves from abusive situations. If Sadie's ultra-violent tactics could be considered something of an irony, the testimonies of these terrified women, often wearing their own cuts and bruises, more than justifies her approach. It's a pointed feminist riposte to the traditional male-driven vigilante narrative.

As Sadie, Wilde is mesmerising. She's a coiled spring of emotion, with so much repressed fear and rage that her eyelids twitch and skin positively ripples. There's no doubt that her underground employment – and the women do pay for her services, but only what they can afford – offers some kind of release, a visceral form of therapy that's more beneficial than any group chat. Yet a great deal of the film's power lies in the fact that much of the violence occurs off-screen; we hear it from another room, or see the bloody aftermath. Here, vengeance is not about excitement, nor heroism, but desperate, essential catharsis.

If Wilde's performance commands the screen, it is matched by some precise filmmaking, particularly as so much of this story is told without dialogue. Balancing the explosive nature of the material with a low-key approach and working with cinematographer Alan McIntyre Smith, Daggar-Nickson makes artful use of the washed-out, anonymous blue-collar upstate New York location to highlight the fact that abuse happens in the most normal of places. Close-ups linger on Sadie's eyes, her shoulders, her hands – damaged flesh that is slowly, painfully being made whole.

Similarly, superb editing from Ben Baudhuin and Matthew C Hart brings intensity and coherence to a narrative that flashes back and forwards in time, gradually forming a portrait of Sadie and giving horrifying meaning to the most innocuous of things: a black and white drawing, a snatched piece of a song. And if, by the end, Sadie has achieved some form of closure, the final-reel reminder that there's a legion of women still to be helped is the film's most devastating blow.

Selected release from Fri 31 May.

A Vigilante

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 31min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Sarah Daggar-Nickson
  • Cast: Olivia Wilde, Morgan Spector, Kyle Catlett
  • UK release: 31 May 2019

Sadie (Wilde) uses her martial arts training to help other women (and children) extract themselves from abusive situations, but she still carries the physical and emotional wounds of her own experiences. Gripping debut feature with an mesmerising central performance from Wilde, superb editing and precise filmmaking—a…