Premiering at SXSW, A Vigilante directed, written by Sarah Daggar-Nickson, and starring Olivia Wilde, highlights the plight of an abused wife who seeks freedom from her abuser. During the arc of the film as a vigilante, the protagonist gradually empowers herself. Working through her rage she evolves and learns why she stayed in her marriage. Eventually, she stands against her husband and finally frees herself from bondage to him. The feature categorized in the “Narrative Spotlight” as an independent film exemplifies a superior first attempt by a director.
Daggar-Nickson selects an interesting topic. However, she approaches the story and its development in an unusual way. In the opening sequences, protagonist Sadie (a dynamite performance by Olivia Wilde), strengthens herself in her fighting skills. She works out with supreme effort. We note her passionate energy and power. In the initial closeups and all those that follow Daggar-Nickson’s camera intimately hones in on Olivia Wilde’s Sadie. We are daunted by the intense inner revelations of Wilde’s interpretation. Her superb acting heightened by Daggar-Nickson’s cinematography encourages an immediate empathy, yet suspicion about Sadie. Who is she? Why the ferocity? What angst lurks in her soul? What of her motives?
Then Daggar-Nickson reveals why the physicality is necessary. Sadie has a job to do and acts as a vigilante to assist an abused and battered wife. Nevertheless, gaps in our knowledge remain as to the how and why and the necessity of obtaining illegal justice away from the system. As we watch Sadie’ s “professionalism” dealing with a recalcitrant bully of a husband, we appreciate her approach. Apparently, throughout their marriage the husband ruled and did as he pleased with the back of his hand and his fist. His beaten wife bowed to his superior strength and paternalism, then finally had enough and called in Sadie.
Sadie, who wears a disguise, physically convinces the husband to sign over the house to his wife and leave her. Additionally, she warns him not to seek revenge or worse will happen to him. The older age of the husband and wife and other factors indicate the wife had no inner power to call protective services. Nor did she have the courage to call the police to stand up to her husband. She allowed herself to be abused until she discovered a vigilante like Sadie might help her. She elected to choose that way out of the marriage rather than go through the lengthy, messy process of fighting for her rights. Calling in a vigilante neatly averted the fights and dominance that would have compelled her again against her will.
Other than these material factors, Daggar-Nickson leaves us with many questions. How did these women meet? Why does Sadie risk her own personal safety for another woman for an insubstantial monetary fee?
In this striking way, the director introduces us to the protagonist and allows us to make assumptions about her. Not only has Sadie trained herself well and taken precautions, she understands how far to go physically with a bullying male. She uses just enough force to awaken the husband that things have changed forever in his abusive relationship.
In these opening moments, Daggar-Nickson creates a trap. She reveals one aspect of the protagonist as a “together” vigilante. And we believe that she is powerful, self-possessed and healthy. In fact, we admire her. Additionally, we suspect that the justice system does not serve women, well and that’s why the abused wife called in Sadie. But then the director gradually unveils the details and information about Sadie’s personal life. Indeed, Sadie cannot confront easily her own failed marriage, her husband’s abuse and the death of her son. The plot twists and charges in another direction.
As Daggar-Nickson deftly unravels our assumptions and the strong portrait of Sadie delivered initially, she curves into Sadie’s real nature. The story delves into the psychological effects of wife beating on the women who have experienced such brutality by bellicose husbands. Daggar-Nickson reveals Sadie’s other persona, one of insecurity and timidity. Indeed, we discover that the mousy, easily bullied Sadie married an abuser and stayed in the relationship. Then an event happened and she escaped and trained herself to be physically strong. However, mentally, her PTSD from the relationship still grips her emotions and cowers her in fear. Being a vigilante helps her combat her weakness and lack of courage. As she helps the women, she strips away layered years of cowardice putting up with her husband’s abuse.
We understand these elements of Sadie when the filmmaker exposes the real woman behind the dynamo warrior. Sadie has enrolled in therapy sessions with other abused women. In group therapy, she remains reticent and inward. She only listens to other women’s’ stories. She hears explanations about how and why they stayed in their failed marriages. As she filters this information, she identifies with them. The process adds to her knowledge and gives her self-awareness. Finally, she “gets” how their spouses entrapped them in a cycle of abuse and forgiveness. And she perceives how the men manipulated their wives to stay, then punished them for it, beginning the pernicious cycle over again. This happened to her.
From these very real sessions where group members explain and confess to each other, Sadie feels comfort. We assume they help her heal. However, her vigilantism continues. It is from these sessions Sadie receives referrals to continue her work of delivering justice upon men by dosing them with their own abuse. Thus, the questions arise? Can Sadie work through her own troubles by doing such acts? What does her vigilantism mean to her? Vengeance? Will she ever be able to confront her own situation and heal completely?
The filmmaker draws us in and keeps us enthralled with the mystery of the protagonist until the film’s turning point. This is not a spoiler alert, but I found myself shocked and on the edge of my seat cringing in the last half of the film. The dynamic events move from suspense to a thrill ride. By the conclusion, we understand why Sadie elects to become a vigilante. Her behaviors are solid, her emotional state heals. However, what it takes for her to get to the end point terrifies.
Daggar-Nickson’s screenplay surprises and jolts. And the logic of the characterization beautifully portrayed by Olivia Wilde sustains throughout. The acting ensemble is superb. Watch out for Morgan Spector who is just great. And the women who the director brought in that are actually part of real group therapy sessions bring an intense pathos and reality to help us understand the heartfelt story of the lives of the battered.
By the conclusion of the film, we come away with the profound knowledge that human relationships of bondage and dependence never bode well. Leaving means recreating a new persona, a different identity. That process takes decades because it is unknowable beforehand. Sadie’s choices, however, suspect initially became the only tenable ones she can make. Only she understand what she had to confront in the past and the present. And how she chooses to finally face the inevitable act which will free her makes for a breathtaking and harrowing closure to a most horrific chapter in her life.
The excellence of Daggar-Nickson’s work and Olivia Wilde’s performance make for a film which discloses truths about abused women and abusing men. In that, it informs with poignant realism. In the choices women make to rid themselves of their noxious passivity and masochism, which allow men to continually abuse them, the film is eye-opening.