Sarah Daggar-Nickson / USA / 2018 / 91 mins
In UK cinemas Fri 31 May and on DVD Mon 3 Jun 2019
The revenge genre is so steeped in machismo that the former is rarely attempted without an unhealthy dollop of the latter, often resulting in pulse-quickening but plausibility-stretching pieces of cinema designed to invoke emotion rather than provoke thought. With her directorial debut, Sarah Daggar-Nickson tries to turn both of those tropes on their head, first by having her female protagonist exact retribution on practitioners of toxic masculinity and second by sacrificing cinematic splendour in favour of gritty realism.
The plot focuses on Sadie (Olivia Wilde on top form), domestic abuse victim turned scourge of its perpetrators, as she offers fellow sufferers the opportunity to escape their situations by turning the tables on sadistic husbands, lovers and, on occasion, negligent mothers. It’s an empowering fantasy which wrenches the power of superior physical strength from cruel bullies and delivers it into the hands of their cowed victims, theoretically righting the wrongs perpetrated by these brutes and revealing them to be the cowards that they are. Unlike many of its predecessors, the film does not shy away from the psychological fall-out of these confrontations, either, probably spending more camera time on Sadie’s hyperventilating, anguish-ridden character than the violent episodes which dominate her life.
This insistence on realism is commendable, but it’s a shame that the themes are only touched upon rather than explored fully. For instance, the film does investigate how Sadie’s own backstory continues to haunt her, but we rarely see a similar depth or complexity in any of the loosely-traced supporting cast. Sadie simply waltzes into their lives and fixes their problems with a facility that undermines the gravitas of the issues with which the film grapples, and it never dares to delve into the deeper roots of such situations or follow their development after Sadie’s involvement. The complete absence of the police – except for a brief and barely believable follow-up in the film’s denouement – is another point upon which reality gives way to fantasy.
Wilde’s performance does much to compensate for these slips in credibility, imbuing Sadie with a humanity that’s so harrowing it can become hard to watch. Indeed, the bleak subject matter of the material and the film’s insistence on eschewing the gratification of bloodlust which characterises so many of its counterparts makes it a less than pleasurable 91 minutes. Even the telegraphed eventual stand-off with her husband and tormentor loses some of its punch due to its relapse into generic tropes, but it does provide something of a pay-off to tie up the ends. Ultimately, it’s a novel addition to revenge cinema which feels very relevant right now, but one which suffers from relentless austerity and selective realism, resulting in a thoughtful but slightly sluggish take on the genre.