Vengeance is the true-crime satire we deserve.
Every time you think you have it all figured out, this dark comedy veers unexpectedly in a way that makes you reevaluate everything you just saw. Makes sense. False assumptions are at the root of the narrative in a surprising movie written, directed, and starring B.J. Novak. You can’t judge a person by where they come from, what they sound like, or even their associates.
The Office, a television show that remains culturally relevant almost a decade after its final episode, has produced so many talented people: Steve Carell, John Krasinski, Dwight Schrute, Mindy Kaling, Craig Robinson, Jenna Fischer, Novak, etc. Carell established himself quickly with hit films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine. Krasinski broke through with A Quiet Place and its sequel. It has taken Novak a moment, but he may have found his footing. With Vengeance, Novak steps out of his comfort zone to create a remarkable Texas film. Perhaps the most Texas movie since Hell or High Water.
In his directing debut, Novak could have been satisfied with making a mere fish-out-of-water tale of a New Yorker visiting West Texas. Would have been solid albeit predictable. But he reaches deeper to uncover uncomfortable truths about America’s obsession with true crime and culture clashes. These days it’s packaged as content that we consume as entertainment in the form of podcasts, newscasts, and documentaries. It’s far too easy to forget that these stories are about real people with real lives and real dreams.
Who tells these stories? People like Novak’s lead character Ben, a writer/podcaster who’s eager to connect with a larger audience professionally. This is in stark contrast to his personal life where he seems to rejoice in not being connected and cultivating meaningful relationships. The opening scene sets the tone, as Novak and his buddy (played by John Mayer) swap theories about dating in the digital age. Numerous available ladies are saved on Ben’s phone with nicknames instead of their real full names.
When one of those casual hookups suddenly dies, that leads to an unexpected and reluctant trip to Texas. Ben doesn’t want to be there for the funeral, but he immediately changes his mind when he sees an opportunity to turn her death into a podcast for a national platform. A little cold, crude, crass? Yep, but that’s one of the main points of Vengeance.
In his pursuit of the truth, Ben meets all sorts of oddballs. Distinctively colorful characters who Ira Glass would kill to have on This American Life. One of them is music producer Quentin (Ashton Kutcher). We cannot overstate how great Kutcher is. From the moment we meet him as he delivers a riveting monologue, Kutcher exudes magnetism. Initially, Ben seems to dismiss Sellers as if he were a carnival barker. But again, this is a movie about assumptions. Sellers quickly wins him over with charm. It wouldn’t be surprising if Kutcher gets his first Academy Award nomination for this supporting role.
In addition to Sellers, the dead woman’s quirky family is led by her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook). Ty is convinced there’s something suspicious about his sister’s death, and wants Ben to help him discover what happened. Ben can’t believe his luck. From the family misfortune, he’s assembling a podcast that’s sure to be a success, according to his producer Eloise (Issa Rae). The more twists and turns the more mesmerized Ben and Eloise become by the story.
While Vengeance touches on the usual Texas stuff (guns, the rodeo, Whataburger), it never feels forced. They feel like part of the story. As the director and writer, Novak drops breadcrumbs throughout the film. But you don’t realize that until everything comes together in the taut final act. It’s a dark comedy that saves its darkest moment for the end.
Novak’s best scene comes when he realizes the true nature of what’s going on. Ben learns that assumptions can not only be flawed, but they can be fatal.
[Photo Credit: Focus Features]