A month or two ago I saw a comedy called BOOKSMART, directed by Olivia Wilde, who I just knew as an actress from TRON: LEGACY. BOOKSMART is about two really smart, funny girls obsessed with good grades and good colleges who, on the night before graduation, try to go to a party. It’s similar to SUPERBAD in both laugh ratio and sweet emphasis on friendship, and it even stars Jonah Hill’s hilarious sister Beanie Feldstein (LADY BIRD), along with Kaitlyn Dever, who played Loretta on Justified. I really enjoyed these two characters, plus the score by Dan the Automator, and highly recommend the movie, but it’s the kind of thing I don’t really know how to write about. I don’t know how to get much mileage out of trying to explain why I think something is funny. So I just tweeted about it and left it at that, until this very paragraph.
But the same week BOOKSMART came out there was a much less jolly movie released on video starring Wilde, written and directed by first-timer Sarah Dagger-Nickson. This one is called A VIGILANTE, and she’s literally playing a vigilante. It’s an arty movie that played South by Southwest in 2018, and the title could maybe be an homage to Jacques Audiard’s A PROPHET, because that seems like sort of the category of movie they’d like to be in. But at the beginning there were logos for Emmett-Furla Productions, Saban, and Moviepass. So yeah, obviously this one I know how to write about.
A VIGILANTE is a subtly different mix of vigilante movie ingredients. This is a tough lady revenge movie of the arthouse badass school – the kind that could get sued for not being fast and furious enough. It’s serious-minded, goes long stretches with no music or dialogue, is more about a build up to quick bursts of violence than the type of involved action I prefer. But to me it’s a very effective style, and Your Honor, please let the record show that its approach isn’t drastically different from THE LIMEY, and that even the first DEATH WISH didn’t exactly turn into an actionfest.
One place it differs from DEATH WISH is also where it feels most fresh. This is about a woman who has been wronged by a man who takes it upon herself to help specific women in abusive relationships, not just take out random criminals. There’s usually a paternalistic thing, a man avenging what happened to his woman or women, but the difference here is more than that. The traditional (death) wish fulfillment is about asserting power against those who prey on others after similar people hurt the women in your family. A VIGILANTE’s version is taking power away from abusers. Wilde’s character Sadie says she won’t kill them, but she uses physical domination to help women and children escape without fear of reprisal.
Those confrontation scenes are a thrill. They’re scary. Part home invasion, part intervention. You live vicariously through her victory, but you feel nervous the whole time.
Sure, we’ve seen female avengers in MS. 45, THE BRAVE ONE, PEPPERMINT and others. What’s unique about this take on the subject matter is how respectfully it treats the experiences of domestic abuse survivors, revolving its story around a support group, telling their emotional stories, having her deal with every day abusers rather than dark alley gang rapists or Mexican drug cartels. And even our anti-heroine, who can be as in control as Batman or THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB when she’s in a groove, also has private PTSD moments where she breaks down, hyper-ventilates, and desperately grabs for a drawing by her son that she carries in a Ziploc bag. Or on a good day she’s able to dance it out, FOOTLOOSE style.
It’s a good balance. It’s grounded like that, but it’s still about a lady with a background in survivalism, who studies Krav Maga, masters the art of disguise, shows up at a dude’s house with contracts ready to sign and notarize, also takes the opportunity to punch him in the fucking throat. She’s so powerful, but the woman she saves recognizes her vulnerability enough to hug her and say “Thank you. Take care of yourself.”
“I am,” she says.
That sounds like what she’s doing is therapeutic, but to me it seems more like a sacrifice. For her, unfortunately, trauma is more than just a cool origin story. It’s an ongoing battle.
I’m always gonna root for leaning even more into the pulp. I’m deeply moved by the hyperbolic, poetic approach that Coralie Fargeat took in REVENGE. But Dagger-Nickson’s more spartan, intimate style is potent in its own right. And Sadie is pretty badass for a character so grounded in raw emotion. She’s always working to stay tough. She punches the dresser with every sit up. She never explains what she’s doing. We just watch her putting on wigs, getting her car from its hiding spot in the woods, pounding on a punching bag, putting a knife under her pillow, looking at fighting manuals, cleaning her bloody knuckles in hotel sinks, marking maps in her search for her husband.
In DEATH WISH he lost his wife, so he goes after random criminals to feel better. In this one, it’s her husband who wronged her. And first we get the DEATH WISH 1 (going after other people), then the DEATH WISH II (going after the perpetrator). Her husband is just credited as “Sadie’s Husband” and he’s played by Morgan Spector (THE DROP). There’s such a buildup before actually seeing him that I kinda thought it was gonna be an unbilled A-list actor. We’ve seen her deal with all these ordinary abusers, men (and women) who go out and pretend to be normal, then come home and treat their wives or their kids like shit. And they usually turn meek when they see what she’s capable of. Her husband is harder to crack, more elaborate in his cruelty, in his gaslighting, in his fantasy world where he’s the good guy and he’s acting out of love for her. Compared to them he seems like a super villain, but he’s not. He’s just another shithead who doesn’t recognize other people’s humanity.
The real takeaway for me is that just when Wilde is establishing herself as a director it’s also clear that she’s a hell of an actor. So much of the movie is her conveying things silently with her face. It’s a performance working with so many different layers and frequencies. I thought she was cool as a computer lady, but I didn’t know she could be this intense. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more from Wilde and/or Dagger-Nickson.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.