New York journalist Ben Manalowitz lives as a know-it-all who believes he possesses a pulse on the American experience. When he discovers that a former hook-up of his has passed away, the family reaches out under the impression he was her long-time boyfriend. Ben travels to the backroads of Texas, where the family presents their theory of her death – a murder. The revelation inspires Ben to investigate the case via a podcast in Vengeance.
Office star B.J. Novak attempts an intriguing genre mix-up for his first feature-length writing/directorial endeavor. Part murder mystery, part cultural satire, part commentary on American disconnect, Vengeance doesn’t always spin its ambitious elements into a cohesive narrative experience. Thankfully, Novak’s moxie and worthwhile vision define Vengeance as an engaging detective yarn bursting with potent ideals.
Don’t let the film’s comedic marketing materials fool you – Vengeance stands as a film with a sturdy thematic backbone. The apparent culture clash between elitist Ben and the red state family he encounters serves as an effective source for some light-hearted gags on American disconnect. Novak doesn’t stop with that familiar conceit, later building upon Ben’s pre-conceived notions of the area as a reflection of society’s penchant to distinguish everyone and everything under stereotypical labels. The character’s podcasting background also spotlights how media truncates reality to fit the notions of pre-conceived classifications.
Novak bites off more than he can chew thematically and often relies upon sanctimonious speeches to spell out his ideals. However, his ambitions extract enough raw truth and poignancy from distinctly American concepts. I appreciate the writer/director for avoiding the obvious satirical route he could have taken against red-state culture. Instead, Novak forms Vengeance as an empathetic portrait of well-meaning individuals divided by harsh cultural and political lines.
As a detective yarn, Vengeance provides a surprisingly arresting thread to unfold. Novak never indulges in the tense twists and turns of a Hollywoodized thriller, but the narrative’s down-to-earth approach elicits a welcomed change of pace for the genre. Novak’s screenplay balances his distinctive tonal fusion into a well-balanced concoction, while his reserved directorial choices help extenuate the atmosphere of a desolate Texas countryside.
A well-calibrated ensemble also adds to Vengeance’s appeals. Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron, J. Smith-Cameron, and a surprisingly reserved Ashton Kutcher each imbue detailed textures under their characters’ folksy facades. It would be easy for these characters to feel like tired amalgams of Southern culture, yet the skilled performers and introspective material ably transcends tired cliches. B.J. Novak also provides a sturdy dramatic center as the film’s protagonist and comedic straight man.
Vengeance carves a unique position in the Hollywood ecosystem with winning results. I am excited to see what Novack can do in the future, considering his worthwhile ambitions.
Vengeance is now playing in theaters.