Vengeance seems like the kind of annoying and overly philosophizing film about “why our country is so divided” because, well, it is that kind of film. Yet, it is good. This can partially be attributed to the appeal of actor/writer/director B.J. Novak, but also in how it owns its own ignorance, privilege, and blind spots. It is a film about a New Yorker reporter who, during one of his many hook-ups, is called by the brother of an old hook-up to be told that she has died. Ben (Novak) has no idea who this woman was, but it is made clear that: A) the family thought they were dating and B) he is expected at the funeral. By his own admission – and via call-out from Eloise (Issa Rae), a top podcast producer – Ben is just another white man who wants a podcast to try and find out something about America. He largely just has ideas, rather than a story and by the time he arrives in his ex-hook-up Abby’s (Lio Tipton) home of West Texas, he thinks he has one. Every report and indication is that Abby died via opioid overdose. Yet, her family, particularly brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook), are adamant that she was murdered. Seeing this as an entry point to a podcast about Abby, America, the myths people tell themselves to avoid pain, and the root cause of the divide in America, Ben sets out to exploit Abby’s death into the podcast of his dreams.
Despite starring in the film himself, Novak knows that Ben is unlikable. Not only will he face down Eloise telling him the idea is a good one, but he is immoral – he will face down numerous people in Abby’s life who will make him realize just how shallow, empty, exploitative, and selfish his life and this podcast have become. This is not an echo chamber of some noble white man riding in to tell the story of a “dead white girl” and figuring out why this country seems to exist with totally different relations to time, information, and reality. More than anything, it is a story of judgment and a fear of feeling. Ben thinly hides his disdain for Abby’s thoroughly Texan family, treats the locals with a condescending attitude, and undeniably rolls his eyes when hearing about Abby’s sisters KC (Dove Cameron) and Paris (Isabella Amara), who have dreams of stardom. Just as Abby’s death is being exploited, their grief and lives are being exploited for this podcast with Ben hardly registering that fact. It is only through people like local record producer Quinten Sellers (Ashton Kutcher) that Ben can have any breakthrough in terms of his views of the local Texans and to the frivolity that has dominated his own life. As much as Vengeance is about Ben’s attempts at making some grandiose statement, the truth lies in Eloise’s feedback on his almost-final recording for the podcast: the story is about him, it has always been about him and his journey. Part of it is breaking out of his own bubble, part of it is being humbled, and part is realizing how self-involved he has become that he cynically uses and dumps people, losing sight of their individuality along the way.
As a result, even as Vengeance tiptoes around politics, it is never as political as it seems on the surface. Ben’s attempt to fit these people into ready-made conclusions about mythology, lies, denial, and struggles never quite fit. Quinten even offers added conclusions about how smart the people in Texas are, just without an outlet, but Vengeance largely discards all of these (even as it upholds it as partially true). To Ben, they are just bumps in the road, red herrings to throw him off the course of finding out the truth behind Abby’s death which, as with many things and people in life, exists in some sort of gray area. Maybe there is a single person to blame, maybe there is not, but in the end, Abby was killed by something and Vengeance unravels that mystery with plenty of natural whodunnit appeal. Right when Ben thinks everything makes sense, suddenly the rug is pulled out from under him. Not only do some characters, such as local drug dealer Sancholo (Zach Villa) amount to a lot more than meets the eye, but even Abby herself has shades never seen in old recordings of her singing. What one shows the world is often just a glimpse of their true self, a reality that Vengeance embraces. Ben and quite a few of these characters are able to make others think of them what they want, all to gain their trust and understanding with some end in sight. Abby herself is guilty of it, just as those who bear responsibility for her death are, which heightens the mystery and uncertainty surrounding her death. Yet, in the same vein, not every piece of Vengeance or life in Texas has more than meets than eye. There is not some cultural reason underlying why deep fried Twinkies are a hit – they just taste good. Even a car bomb may not have the malicious intent one may assume, just local rivalries coming into play.
It does not hurt that Vengeance is also naturally funny, feeding off of Novak’s laid back persona well with plenty of deadpan humor along the way. It does hit the “fish out of water” comedy a bit too hard at times, but one thing this film gets right in its podcast is that these characters he encounters are so often the story. Boyd Holbrook is fantastic as Ty Shaw, Abby’s heartbroken and vengeance-minded brother who has an endearingly matter-of-fact way of speaking. Grandma Carole Shaw (Louanne Stephens) moves from absurd gun knowledge to openly weeping about the Alamo, while watching KC and Ben try to have any kind of conversation that usually leads to some solid miscommunication comedy. Vengeance, in eschewing true political poignancy in its themes, may pull back from being more thought-provoking but in settling for being both a capable mystery and consistently funny comedy, it achieves flat-out entertainment value. It plays to the strengths of its cast, Novak does not overstretch himself, and the entire cast captures the right lived-in energy to pull this film together. More than anything, it does not try to be smug about Texas. It makes no bones about how out of his depth Ben is, how wrong he is, and how little he understands about Texas, utilizing it for effective jokes at his expense, all while celebrating the traditions that make up this family and region’s culture.
Vengeance may not reach for any overarching ideals, but it instead finds success in plain old entertainment and in its quietly profound depictions of modern life on an individual-scale. It is funny, while taking a classic Western setup about seeking revenge and plops a modern day yuppie into the lead role. Watching him on his unwitting journey towards vengeance, all under the guise of trying to make this podcast and solve a murder mystery, makes for a satisfying experience. In his directorial debut, B.J. Novak gets fantastic work out of his talented supporting cast, especially Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, and Issa Rae. Funny and touching on enough authenticity in both the urban and rural environments it finds itself in, Vengeance is a solid debut from Novak.