Vengeance, the theatrical directorial debut of B.J. Novak—best known for his stint as a actor/writer on The Office—is about an East Coast hot-take artist and podcaster (well, would-be podcaster, really) who relocates for a time to the wilds of Texas to try and uncover a story about the reality of America’s decline into unreality. Needless to say, as an East Coast hot-take artist and podcaster (actual) who relocated to Texas, I was intrigued by the setup.
After a brief opening in New York City, where we see the shallow Ben Manalowitz (Novak) trade pre-digested conversational bits with a buddy—everything is 100 percent; the only real concern is finding the next party or deciding which booty to call—the action moves to Texas. Ben is attending the funeral of (would-be) singer Abilene (Lio Tipton, who haunts the film via posthumously viewed video clips). He barely knew her, but her family believes he was her committed boyfriend.
Abilene’s brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), believes that there’s no way his sister would’ve died from an overdose, just another faceless victim of the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation. No, he thinks there’s something darker at play. The cartels. A coverup. Police? They can’t be trusted. Besides, her body was found where a handful of jurisdictions overlap, and none of the authorities want any part of it.
The refusal to accept what seems to be a rather straightforward tragedy gives Ben the hot take his true crime podcast (possible title: “Dead White Girl”) needs to separate itself from the pack: this is a story about America and the refusal of its people to accept the reality in which they find themselves. As one character puts it, “Everything means everything, so nothing means anything.”
It’s an important line, and not only because it jibes with my fundamental belief in the warping nature of social media. The dream of social media—the internet age in general, really—was that a multiplicity of outlets would provide people greater amounts of information that in turn gives them a greater chance of discovering what is true. The reality of the internet and social media is that the world has turned into a Choose Your Own Adventure book, one in which we can easily silo ourselves off, getting angry at the people or events of our choosing and either ignoring or damning any inconvenient fact that violates the sanctity of said silo.
All of which is to say that Vengeance is a take on takes, a sort of meta-take, and that the West Texas of it all is mostly just window dressing that allows Novak an avenue to get at this take. The best sequences in the film are those involving record producer and would-be Warhol 2.0 Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), another transplant (he went to school in New Haven), who has come to the expanse of Texas to make something of himself and the people here.
Movies such as this—about an Elite Coastal Outsider coming to visit the Back-Country Folks—run the risk of coming off as, well, touristy, particularly when they are penned by one such elite, even one as self-aware as Novak. Self-awareness presents a second, complementary problem: the desire to demonstrate the ECO’s out-of-touch aloofness in the face of the BCF’s day-to-day struggles.
Novak largely avoids the first landmine (obligatory Whataburger sojourn aside, though Ben’s bemusement at the obsession with this mid-tier hamburger chain lands nicely for those of us who still don’t quite get the fuss). The film has a tone of mild condescension, but said tone applies just as much to the podcaster scene in Brooklyn as it does to the denizens of rural Texas. The one real misstep, to my ears, comes late in the film when Ben delivers a monologue to Abilene’s family about vaccines and believing science and the such, which ends in a way to make him look like a real jerk. A misstep not because Ben’s sentiment here feels untrue—it’s simmering below the surface for most of the movie—but because I simply do not believe that character would’ve delivered that speech to that family at that moment.
It would’ve been a rant to a friend at a party, perhaps an epilogue to the podcast he spends the movie producing. Face-to-face confrontation is not the m.o. of Manalowitz’s cohort.
A concession to the demands of drama, I suppose. And a small thing overall. Vengeance keeps its audience on their toes and has an interesting idea at its core, all while wrapping things up in a timely fashion.