Jun 5, 2019

A Vigilante [15]

Dir: Sarah Daggar-Nickson
The UK DVD cover for A Vigilante primes you to watch a completely different film. With red dominating, Olivia Wilde with her fist clenched and serious looking, the genre listed as ‘action’, it suggests something fast paced and punchy - perhaps closer to awful recent Jennifer Garner vehicle Peppermint. It is then a surprise to discover that writer/director Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s debut is actually a quiet, tense, thoughtful film dedicated not to violence but to the exploration of trauma and vengeance.

Wilde plays Sadie, she moves around a lot, taking violent action - though always stopping short of killing - to help people who seek her out to escape violent partners or parents. We see the toll this life takes on her, but also discover why she turned to this action and her pursuit of her own previously missing abusive husband (Morgan Spector).

For the first half of this short film (82 minutes minus credits), the structure unfolds as a series of brief episodes with Sadie - whose name we learn only at that half way mark - moving from one job to the next, one disguise to the next. In between these jobs the only background we have are glimpses of Sadie training or getting her wigs and contact lenses ready for the next disguise. Wilde barely speaks, either in these in between moments or during her work. The most we get are a few sentences either instructing the person (usually the husband of a woman who hired he) she’s attacking or apologising to the person who hired her for having to take any material reward for her work. In many of these moments she seems affectless, for instance nonchalantly snacking while a woman methodically destroys her husband’s possessions, but it’s a job she becomes emotionally involved in that leads the film to fill in her backstory and send her after her husband.

Olivia Wilde is having a very good 2019, with the one two punch of her brilliant directorial debut Booksmart and this performance, which shows her to have far greater depth than I’ve ever seen from her before as an actor. This performance is far less spoken than it is breathed. I mean this both in that Wilde seems to live into the character and in a literal sense. After a section that fills in the devastating details of what her husband did, and why this last job we see has such an impact on her, the film returns to being almost devoid of dialogue, and everything we register vocally from Sadie after that is in her breathing. Wilde’s focused rage in the part is extremely powerful and with only limited tools to work with she gets under the skin of this woman driven to vengeance - whether for herself or on behalf of others - by unspeakable tragedy.

With her feature debut, writer and director Sarah Daggar-Nickson turns in a film of supreme confidence. The easy route here would be to showcase violence but she instead adopts a terse and chilly style, working frequently in close up to allow Wilde’s performance to own the frames. With editors Ben Baudhuin and Matthew C. Hart, Daggar-Nickson develops a cutting rhythm that often takes us away from a moment just when another film would extend it or move closer. Violence, when seen at all, is swift and often just out of frame. In another film, especially in its climactic moments, this choice might grate, but here it serves to help bring home what the film is about - vengeance not as an outlet for violence but as a search for catharsis.

Given a small release in the UK, A Vigilante is likely to struggle to find a big audience, but I hope the people who stumble on it, perhaps expecting something different, will give it a chance. If they do they’ll find a film as powerful and thoughtful as Olivia Wilde’s commanding work in it.

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