Sunday, April 14, 2019

"A Vigilante": review

[WARNING: I spoil the ending to be able to discuss a major story point.]

I've been sitting on this review for about a week, mulling over how best to approach this movie. It's been very tempting, given the spate of grrrl power movies that have come out in recent years, to compare 2019's "A Vigilante"—which stars Olivia Wilde (who played Thirteen on "House") and is directed by first-timer Sarah Daggar-Nickson—to films like "Wonder Woman" and "Captain Marvel." But I'm not sure that such a comparison does justice to Daggar-Nickson's movie. Or maybe it does, but only if we consider "A Vigilante" to be an actioner like the other films. Here's the iTunes blurb for "A Vigilante":

Give her a call, and she'll give you justice. After escaping her violent husband, Sadie (Olivia Wilde) makes it her life's mission to help free others in danger. Now, after months of rigorous training in survival skills, boxing, and lethal martial arts, Sadie is back with a vengeance in this fight-packed action-thriller.

That has to be one of the most misleading blurbs ever written. "A Vigilante" is 180 degrees away from being a "fight-packed action-thriller." The movie moves at a glacially slow pace; it uses a quirky music soundtrack very sparingly to convey the buildup from quiet thoughtfulness to raw emotion; from what I saw, there are only a few instances in which we see Sadie actually land blows. The movie isn't about the violence; this isn't a retread of Jennifer López's 2002 "Enough." The focus is almost entirely on the state of Sadie's mind, which gives us viewers some insight into what it means to become a vigilante.

The story cuts back and forth between (1) group-therapy sessions in which Sadie generally just sits quietly, not volunteering anything, and (2) the work Sadie does as a vigilante. It takes a while to understand that the group sessions happened in the past; they aren't happening in parallel to her righteous work. This is important because our understanding affects how we see the therapy: is Sadie hiding the fact that she's a secret vigilante from the group, or are those sessions a kind of catalyst, driving her to become a vigilante? It turns out that the latter is the case: therapy empowers her to take on the mantle of a woman who abandons passivity, gathers up her courage, and turns the tables on violent men.

Sadie's past is filled with demons. Her abusive husband killed their young son, then he went on the run and still hasn't been caught. Sadie knows the man is a survivalist, and she knows, in a general way, that he'll be out hiding in the Adirondacks, biding his time and living off the grid. Sadie eventually tells her therapy group that her husband would drive the whole family out to the mountains to practice survival skills; whenever her son wasn't looking, her husband would deliberately break one or more of Sadie's bones, ostensibly as a way to "train" her in wilderness first aid. On the day Sadie decided to leave her husband, she and her son managed to get a couple hundred yards before he caught her, slashed her dozens of times with a knife, and then killed their boy. Sadie is filled with self-loathing because she thinks that taking her son with her to flee was what got him killed. At the same time, she is filled with fury about the monster who is her husband.

The movie first takes us episodically through a few instances of Sadie's vigilante work. The women who call her use a code phrase to indicate they're seeking her special sort of help. The first man we see her deal with gets a well-aimed strike to the throat when he jumps up in fury after Sadie commands him to leave his family. We then cut to a quiet scene in which the man, thoroughly subdued and with trembling, bloody fingers, signs away most of his money, then signs certain papers relinquishing ownership of family property. We never see what happens between that first throat strike and the paper-signing, but we can tell that Sadie has worked the man over, probably torturing him into submission. Sadie helps a few other women before the focus of the story turns to the unresolved issue of Sadie's husband.

Sadie's hunt for her husband signals a shift in the movie's tone. First came the righteous anger that powered Sadie through her various encounters with violent husbands who abused their families. In this second half of the film, the focus is now on Sadie's desire to kill her husband despite still being terrified of him. We don't learn much about the man, except that his name is Mitch. We do learn that he's mentally unstable—possibly schizophrenic, possibly psychotic—and this manifests in his cruel and twisted point of view, in which he sees Sadie as the reason their son is dead. It's no spoiler to say that Sadie eventually tracks her man down, but I'm going to have to spoil the movie's conclusion because that's the only way I can talk about my ambivalence toward the film.

Sadie finds her husband's hiding place: a cabin out in the wintry wild, which is empty when she finds it. Her husband somehow tracks Sadie back to her current hotel, and in the movie's only jump-scare moment, knocks her out. Sadie wakes up tied to a chair in her husband's cabin; when he leaves to go hunting, Sadie manages to free herself, but when her husband comes back, all her new-found fighting skills prove useless against what I assume to be his military combat training. Having subdued Sadie, Mitch commands her to place her forearm over a piece of firewood on the floor. She does so, and Mitch stamps on her arm, breaking it. Sadie is now reliving all those terrifying family excursions out in the mountains. She manages to escape Mitch, and she runs to an empty ski lodge that looks as if it's either been abandoned or is in the early stages of being renovated. She rushes inside the building, blocking the main door, then uses various items to create a splint for her broken arm. All she can do now is wait for Mitch's inevitable arrival while she tries to figure out how to take him out.

After a brief cat-and-mouse scene in which Mitch quietly tracks Sadie, Sadie abandons the element of surprise and simply confronts Mitch in a well-lit swimming-pool area. They exchange words as they circle each other, and Sadie promises to kill Mitch for killing their son. We cut to a scene in which Sadie's group-therapy leader reads a letter from Sadie that talks about how she now has the courage to fight for abused women; Sadie advises the group leader to burn the letter, which the leader does. Cut back to the present, and to the swimming pool: Sadie has killed her husband, and she lies beside his staring corpse. Later, in a nighttime scene, we see Sadie's truck from behind, crawling along a forested path. Sadie stops the truck and appears, opening the truck's back hatch and struggling to lug out something heavy: Mitch's naked body, only barely wrapped in a heavy black tarp. Sadie unceremoniously drops the body onto the road, leaving it uncovered. She gets back in her truck and drives away. The epilogue tells us that the police found Mitch's body but found no evidence of who might have done the crime. In the meantime, Mitch's life insurance will now pay out to Sadie—something that hadn't been possible while Mitch was still alive and running from the law. Now having seen a certain measure of justice done, Sadie returns to her work, and to an uncertain future, as a vigilante who fights for abused women.

The movie's quiet, smoldering ambiance doesn't encourage you to cheer for Sadie, although there are opportunities to feel a sort of grim satisfaction whenever she fucks a nasty man up. The story is clear that each of these men deserves what's coming to him, but I didn't take the film to be some general commentary on "toxic masculinity," a dangerously nebulous concept that's currently very much in vogue. If the film showcases some sort of feminist agenda, that agenda arises organically as a function of the story. I don't think the screenplay was written top-down, with writers in a room saying, "Let's make a kickass feminist tale and flesh out the details later." From what I saw, Sadie comes first, in all of her battered humanity. Olivia Wilde does an excellent job of taking us through the range of Sadie's emotions. Sadie's life is a haunting tragedy, and for much of the film, the specter of her husband—who is somewhere out there—hovers nearby. The viewer is free to explore the question of how a person becomes a vigilante, and I guess that, in some ways, "A Vigilante" does vaguely share some traits with a superhero origin story, as long as the superhero in question is one with a tragic past that motivates his or her current actions.

What frustrated me, though, was Sarah Daggar-Nickson's constant turning-away from violence. I assume there's a good reason why she did this. At a guess, she was trying to emphasize something I'd written above, to wit: violence isn't the point of this story. But in Sadie's final confrontation with Mitch, Sadie—despite a broken arm, and despite having been twice outfought and overpowered by her husband—somehow gets the upper hand and kills him. It would be nice to see how this happens, not because I'm slavering to watch a good beating, but because, up to that point, we viewers are made to see Mitch as crazy but physically superior in every way. In other words, after a narrative that is nine-tenths plausible in how it plays out, we suddenly do a hard left turn into fantasy. From what I could see, there was simply no way Sadie could ever have gotten the upper hand against her husband. Fighting him should have been like fighting, unarmed, against a bear.

I mentioned plausibility. We see Sadie basically training herself to fight. She never takes classes; she never spars with anyone else: at the domestic-violence center, she nicks a book on the Israeli military martial art of krav maga and does what she can to internalize the fighting principles that the manual teaches. Sadie has access to a punching bag somewhere; we never learn where, and I found those punching-bag sequences a bit confusing because, as she goes on her missions, Sadie tends to stay at random hotels. Does she keep the bag in her car's trunk? The movie never explains this. But the movie realistically shows that, while Sadie can acquit herself one on one with an unsuspecting male opponent, she has trouble fighting multiple male opponents (she takes down three drunk guys outside a bar, but with difficulty*), and—at least initially—she can't do a thing against her expertly trained husband. Sadie isn't made out to be a krav maga superwoman the way Jennifer López's character was in "Enough." We feel Sadie's terror at the prospect of physically confronting Mitch, so it's a major letdown when we aren't allowed to witness the actual takedown.

Daggar-Nickson's directorial choice not to show Sadie's violence is a huge flaw in the narrative because it actually causes a narrative problem. Sadie's takedown of her husband comes off as contrived, which is disappointing given how realistic the movie had been up to that point. But the movie also has so much going for it, mainly thanks to Wilde's deeply empathetic performance and Daggar-Nickson's ability to build tension. "A Vigilante" isn't an action-thriller; there's actually very little action in it. It is, however, a most excellent character study about a woman who has had everything taken away from her. And in the end, I have to give the film kudos, despite the violence-lacunae, because we're rooting for Sadie to find some measure of peace in her life. And a bit like the way Batman suffered a single tragedy that he relives every time he takes down yet another criminal, we comes to understand that peace, for Sadie, can only come by living her new, chosen life.



*Interestingly, this scene actually showed the violence, but perhaps in a way that was meant to reveal that Sadie, despite having studied about fighting, is no robotic fighting machine.

NB: I think "A Vigilante" was released in theaters, but it was simultaneously made available for rent on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video. Customer reviewers on Amazon (where the movie currently has 3 stars) are giving this film a lot of hate, probably because the renters went in expecting an action-thriller, as I did. Can't say I blame them for feeling betrayed, but if you take the movie on its own terms and ignore the stupid marketing, it's a worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes. I saw some complaints about "story holes" and about Olivia Wilde crying and panting too much, but I think those complainers missed the point of those scenes, or they simply felt no sympathy for Wilde's character.



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