Sometimes when you start writing a review for a film you have to laugh at yourself. Film critiquing is part of the job, but often you find a film that properly deconstructs the very notion of giving one’s opinion on art that it indeed becomes comical to contribute to the mere obstacles the film attempts to overcome. VENGEANCE the directorial debut of the multi talented B.J. Novak is a lot of things but one thing it never becomes is typical. A surprising, humorous and often dark investigation of everything that is wrong and also everything that is right about America. It’s a damn tall order but Novak who is best known for spending years writing, directing, producing and starring on the cultural monument that is “The Office.” Novak is not just talented the man is highly intelligent, moving onto other shows as well as an exceptional children’s book The Book with No Pictures. Novak loves to flip the mirror on everyone and especially himself. A white male in a world where most members of that group need to do some self reflection, Novak has always been up for the challenge and he invites us to do the same. VENGEANCE which is produced under mega producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse is not the typical horror film they go for, but much like Jordan Peele’s Get Out it is another reminder of the division our country faces and if there’s any chance to see things in a stronger light. The answer like many of the things Novak does is not quite simple.
Ben Manalowitz (Novak) has got it pretty easy, even if through his pretentious nyc eyes don’t see it that way. He spends his nights discussing with John Mayer (yes that John Mayer) about the many female prospects in his phone and how they both can easily send out feelers and see where fate takes them. It’s easy to roll your eyes at this behavior and laugh it off and yet it’s all too common. Ben also hosts a podcast because well he is a white male living in New York so what the heck else is there to do. His producer (Issa Rae) encourages him to find something a little bit more personal and clearer. His next story really needs to hit. But when Ben receives a phone call from a Texan named Tye (Boyd Holbrook) claiming that his girlfriend is dead well Ben is confused but still finds his way to Texas and stumbles upon what he believes is his next big thing. The “girlfriend” in question is Abilene (Lio Tipton) who Ben casually hooked up with a few times back in the city. However Abilene’s family believes they were much closer, and Tye believes her overdose death was actually a murder attached to a giant town conspiracy. Now both Ben and the film as a whole could have used this entire set up to make a 90 minute movie ridiculing the kind but peculiar Texas family of Abilene, heck it could have even done the reverse and shown how Ben is the douche and the family was right. Thankfully it chooses both but also something much larger.
As Ben gets closer to the family in his investigation (he refuses to seek vengeance as Tye wants to do) he sees that there clearly is a bigger picture but it is not conspiracy. Novak’s script excels in making the first half of the film a look at small town Texas life and how it has defined so many different generations. One of Abilene’s sisters named Kansas City (Dove Cameron doing a great job moving away from her Disney upbringing) wants to be a star just because, meanwhile her grandmother still cries over the loss at the Alamo, and the youngest is referred to as El Stupido because well “he can’t speak Spanish” so it won’t bother him. They all live and breath for Texas but that means they also see it’s faults. The script does a great job at fleshing each of the supporting characters out to the point where it becomes clear as day that this family is both welcoming and much more intelligent than Ben’s city prejudgments had in store.
That notion of not giving out prejudgments would be enough to fill a 90 minute movie but Novak for all his creativity has much more on his mind. As Ben digs deeper he begins to unravel deeper truths about why people in America fall into conspiracy beliefs “the truth is harder to accept” he proclaims, but as things start to look more convincing that Abilene’s death wasn’t an overdose this city boy quickly learns how much Texas can get a hold of you. No other character Ben meets is more convincing than a record producer played by Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher (delivering the film’s standout character) plays this role as a flamboyant scarf wearing cowboy hat donning Phil Spector sort. You just know the vibes are off on this man even if Ben is seduced by his intellectual philosophical tactic to get the right sound. Kutcher who hasn’t been in a major film in quite some time commands the screen advising Ben to “just listen, even to the silence.” He believes in Texas, knows the people can be eccentric but also knows none of them are idiots. Ben must become Texan if he wants to find the truth out about Texas. It is here that we see many of the comedic talents that made Novak’s writing so sharp on sitcom television. From scenes involving unconditional love to Whataburger train restaurant to a rodeo showdown fight over the proper Texas college, it all works well not because of mockery but because of pure unfiltered honesty.
For all it’s twists and turns the film never banks on being the greatest mystery ever solved. As the curtain gets pulled back more and more the central figure of the story becomes clear. Even more frightening though is the realization that making art (this time in the form of a podcast) can also be damming to the subjects we use. Are murder podcasts exploitation? Can art ever receive valuable criticism when everyone has a take? As Ben’s podcast comes closer to being done it is also moving further and further from the fact that a young woman was murdered and there is a societal system that allows us to turn our back from empathy in favor of entertainment. If we have truly ventured that far off then it must mean that even a murderer can be given a pass by those that chose to support the opposing side just because. Again all this in 90 minutes, quite the feat. VENGEANCE is asking a ton of questions and clearly comes to some of its own cynical answers, but answers don’t have to be the final say. In fact they can be a starting point, and in their lies the secret empathy of VENGEANCE that sneaks up on you. There is always time to find ways to rectify the division we have so violently chosen. Not just to reach out our hand to another side, but be fully aware of the reasons we are doing so. There can’t be a sustainable world where we choose to do something right just because there is a beneficial factor. No it must be done to create a momentum of genuine change. VENGEANCE for all its critique and satire pulls a great slight of hand trick. It’s main focus is to be that spark that allows us to realize that if our life is going to have bad moments then make the most of them. Use and harness that energy to find a way to create kindness and change. A very large statement to make by a filmmaker for his first film. But then again maybe Novak knows that the best way to fix anything is to sit and listen. If we all do the truth will find it’s way out.
VENGEANCE PREMIERED AT THE 2022 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE GALA SECTION. IT WILL BE RELEASED IN THEATERS BU FOCUS FEATURES ON JULY 29