In one of the many scenes of churning fear and rage that make up “A Vigilante,” Sadie (Olivia Wilde), a crime-fighting desperado in upstate New York, sits in the living room of a respectable-looking middle-aged man and explains to him how things are going to be. She’s wearing a disguise — she has given herself the spirit-gum wrinkles and fuddy-duddy clothing of a primly officious lawyer — but there’s nothing concealed about her words. With an air of ice-cold calm, she orders the man to sign over three-quarters of his savings and quit his finance job, and to leave the home he’s sitting in forever. The movie then cuts to the end of the episode, when he’s a bloody mess, skulking out of the house with his life and dignity and future in tatters.
The man is a domestic abuser; Sadie has arrived to save — and liberate — his wife, with an attitude of pitiless wrath that leaves no room for doubt. She’s exactly what the film’s title says she is: an avenger who takes the law into her own hands, transforming herself into a brutally righteous underground heroine.
Yet Sarah Daggar-Nickson, the audaciously gifted writer-director of “A Vigilante,” hasn’t just some made glib feminine flip-flop of a Charles Bronson film. If you watch a movie like “Death Wish” (not the recent Bruce Willis remake, which was so smirky-slick it left no traces, but the down-and-dirty Bronson original), it’s easy to get onto the wavelength of a man prowling the night, shooting muggers with a handgun, and still be appalled by what the film is saying: that an ordinary citizen has the right to be an executioner.
“A Vigilante” operates in a zone that’s less demagogic and more morally precise. Sadie doesn’t kill her victims, and despite the echo of her name, she isn’t a sadist; she’s not a blood fundamentalist seeking payback. She’s out to rescue women who are trapped in a living nightmare, and by cutting their abusers loose she achieves a rough justice.
She is also a torn and fragmented human being, baptized in anguish, and Olivia Wilde’s nakedly emotional performance places her in a different category from all the male movie vigilantes (Bronson, Statham, etc.), or even the women like Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” films, who’ve exacted vengeance upon the evildoers who so deserve it. Sadie is a domestic-abuse survivor, and the movie, which unfolds with a prismatic time-leap structure that immerses us in every moment, is a rivetingly austere psychodrama that shows the audience what, exactly, is going on inside the heart and mind of someone who would dare to take on the role of living-room shadow warrior. Away from her mission, living out of cheap motels, Sadie weeps and rages, re-experiencing the trauma she suffered. Wilde shows you the place where terror and fury go through the looking glass and are alchemized into action.
We see Sadie in a support group, buried under the shyness of her despair, and after a while you realize that this is the “before” picture. Only later does she begin to figure out that with some Krav Maga training and tossed-together costumes, she can turn being a freelance vigilante into a kind of livelihood. Not all her victims are men; there’s one encounter with a sick puppy of a mother, who’s raising her two kids as prisoners, that’s more disturbing than anything in “Room.”
That said, “A Vigilante” is very much a myth of our time, dramatizing the rage that too many women have felt they needed to suppress. That’s why the movie has a solid shot to connect with art-house audiences. As an actress, Olivia Wilde has been something of a shape-shifter, but in this movie she seems to be burning through all her previous roles to find something essential. She grabs hold of the spectacle of agonized female anger, and does it with a grace and power that easily matches that of Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
“I Can Only Imagine” tells the backstory of how a song came to exist. Not just any song but the best-selling single of all time. Relatively unique among faith-based films, it’s a decent addition to Hollywood’s most hit-or-miss genre — the music biopic — that abruptly ends where the first-act break typically occurs in such movies: before the once-humble singer gets too big for his britches, caves in to temptation, and starts using drugs and/or cheating on his wife (since, for once, those tiresome cliches don’t seem to apply).
Instead, fans of the title song already know how “I Can Only Imagine” turns out — that is, what happens once MercyMe front man Bart Millard writes the lyrics to the track that will launch their debut album to triple-platinum status.
In Bart’s case, it was deepened by the fact that his father was such an abusive monster (played here as a grizzled piece of beef jerky by Dennis Quaid). How exactly the song got discovered has been conveniently refashioned to suit the movie’s feel-good narrative. “I Can Only Imagine” was not an instant success but “sat quietly on their indie record for eight months before they ever played it live,” according to Millard’s website.
Bart was not an only child but the second of two kids. His mom filed for divorce when he was three, rather than walking out on their family when he was 13 (so the scene where Bart runs out and collapses to his knees in the middle of the road as her moving van pulls off in the distance probably didn’t go down that way at all). And so on.
But this is not a documentary, and though filmmakers are perhaps held to a higher standard of honesty than their wayward Hollywood counterparts, it’s standard practice for biopics (especially hagiographic ones made with the involvement of the musicians they depict) to simplify and streamline factual details for the sake of drama. In the case of the Erwin brothers, “Woodlawn” directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, these guys have a pretty good sense of what works for their audience — and what works is adversity, humility, selfless acts of kindness, and the idea that the inexplicable force most screenwriters think of as fate. (Agencies)
So, while borrowing actual details from Millard’s memoir (published a month before the movie came out), Jon Erwin and co-writer Brent McCorkle (“Unconditional”) have treated the story almost like a parable, stressing how the small-town Texas boy’s newfound faith — discovered at praise camp, where he also met childhood sweetheart Shannon (in the movie’s telling, at least) — gave him the strength to deal with his father’s regular beatings.
A high school football star whose own dreams were crushed by a serious accident in later life (omitted here), Bart’s father, Arthur, is surly, unpleasant, and quick to anger. One-dimensionally evil at first, he’s like a character in a Stephen King novel, although the film takes no pleasure in depicting his abuse — apart from one awful moment in which he breaks a plate across the back of Bart’s head. Instead, we see the damage on Finley’s face: Bart has carried this trauma with him his entire life. And it serves to deepen the reconciliation between father and son, portraying that final stretch together as the relationship they ought to have shared all along. (Agencies)
By Owen Gleiberman