One of the most buzzed-about performances at SXSW this year came from Olivia Wilde, who, despite years and years in the spotlight and collaborations with directors like Joe Swanberg, never managed to really show the extent of what she was capable of. People may want to argue with me about that, but once you see her work in Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s new thriller A Vigilante, you will be astonished by her intensity and ferocity, and wonder where the hell this person came from. It’s a career-redefining performance that elevates a relatively rote thriller (outside of some of the other members of the ensemble and their contributions) and transforms it into something fascinating.
Wilde is Sadie, a formerly abused woman who now works as a fixer for women in bad situations, who contact her by leaving a voicemail with a key code phrase, and tell her what she needs to know (when their children are at home, if their abuser owns guns, et cetera) before she heads over there. She’s not afraid of violence — the movie opens with her bashing the heavy bag with venom, and she soon afterwards nearly shatters a man’s trachea — but the movie isn’t exploitative in the way you might expect a B-movie to be.
Far more attention is paid to the emotional violence that was wreaked upon the survivors and their healing process, coming for some as a confession at group (which is where most of the film’s most powerful moments lie, for Wilde and for others) or the literal rending of the home they shared with their partner. It’s as close to resolution as they’ll ever get, but it’s a fresh start, and there’s a power in that. If only that were true for Wilde, who is pushed into confronting the abusive off-the-grid husband (Morgan Spector) that she’s spent the movie searching for on trails in upstate New York, and is tortured by him until she goes full Neeson on his ass, off-camera. The film’s descent into generic thrills undermines some of the hard work it does early on, but it never truly derails it.
Daggar-Nickson keeps us at a small remove from the proceedings, and her coldness (also reflected in the film’s grey color palette) is one of its greatest assets: It allows her performers to come into their own naturally, without any manipulation, and gives us a stark vision of the horrors that Sadie encounters in her travels. Chief among these is a scene in which she is called to rescue two young boys from their abusive mother, who keeps them padlocked in a room in their apartment when she’s not torturing them or sending them for groceries, and though we never see inside the room, Wilde’s reaction — pure horror — tells us all we need to know.
Her panic attack that follows when she’s out of the room, where she rips off her wig and gasps for air between sobs fills in further gaps, is painful to watch but of use: It hints at a character revelation that’s down the road. A Vigilante is an incredibly tough watch, but it may be a necessary one for many.
‘A Vigilante’ should hit theaters at some point in 2018. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo credit: Alan McIntyre Smith