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Vengeance Review: B.J. Novak Takes America to Task

B.J. Novak’s Vengeance is far more than its marketing would lead you to believe, as this murder mystery comedy doubles as an astute observation of modern American society.

Most in the mainstream may solely see The Office star B.J. Novak as a “funny guy,” but with his feature directorial debut Vengeance, the comedian proves that he has far more than laughs on his mind. Novak sure hasn’t made it easy for himself as a first-time feature director – taking on the topic of “truth in a divided America” in this complex murder mystery comedy – but by starting with a simple premise and only slowly weaving in more of his weightier meditations on modern society, Novak arrives at a conclusion that will linger with you long after the credits roll, proving that there is more to this jokester than meets the eye.

And sure, the initial set-up is a bit morbidly amusing: Ben Manalowitz (Novak), a journalist and podcaster from New York City, is called to West Texas to attend the funeral of a girl he once hooked up with named Abilene (Lio Tipton, of Crazy, Stupid, Love. and The Green Hornet), with her family believing that he and she were actually a couple. However, once the initial silliness subsides, the plot takes a wild turn, as Abilene’s hillbilly brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook, of Logan and The Predator) believes Abilene was murdered, and wants Ben’s help to seek vengenace for her.

Initially, Ben agrees simply because he sees an opportunity for a podcast here: one centered around a grieving family who, instead of accepting that Abilene is gone due to her own actions (as her death is ruled an “accidental drug overdose”), believe that there is some grander conspiracy here, and someone has to pay. It’s a hook that will appeal to the true crime crowd, as Ben and his editor Eloise (Issa Rae, of Insecure) are interested in almost immediately, but one that also allows Ben to dig into grander social commentary about “red staters” – and, more broadly, the “less cultured/educated” – and how they seek to always find someone to blame for what happens to them, instead of ever looking inward for responsibility.

However, upon meeting Abilene’s family – including matriarch Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron, of Succession) and mouthy grandmother Carole (Louanne Stephens, of Instinct) – and spending more time with them, Ben discovers that there’s more depth than he expected here, both with Abilene’s family and the central crime he soon becomes obsessed with. Was he too quick to judge these Texans? And was Abilene actually murdered?

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Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in Vengeance, written and directed by B.J. Novak (Focus Features)

Vengeance is a movie that asks a lot of questions but often refuses to give any easy answers, even if the plot resolves in a rather conclusive manner – and that’s the beauty of Novak’s sharp and subversive screenplay. Even though the movie starts with Abilene’s death and potential “murder,” we arrive at a point where the implications of said event are more haunting than even the event itself, and the “who?” or “what?” matters less than the “why?,” as is the case with every great murder mystery. However, here that “why?” means even more due to Novak using the story as the way to shed a light on the ugliest truths about America that we either aren’t acknowledging or simply don’t wish to accept. In some scenes, one may worry that Vengeance – and Novak – is preaching “bothsidesism,” and trying to shame more liberal minded viewers for “judging” conservatives and “red staters” before meeting them, as Ben does with Abilene’s family. However, Vengeance is a far more complicated film morally and politically than it first appears on the surface, and its greatest attribute is that it truly isn’t trying to force us to think or do one certain thing, but rather presenting a broader analysis of all Americans and our faults in the 21st Century social discourse (and the discourse’s faults, as well) and leaving it up to us to decide how to proceed.

The finale – which shan’t be spoiled here – is dark and damning stuff, and Novak should be given considerable credit from not shying away from the harsh truths about how we all act and posture ourselves today, never truly taking a side (with Novak clearly criticizing himself, too) and not leaving anyone exempt, without also arguing that certain groups “haven’t been given a fair shake.” We’ve all played a part in how America has gotten to this point – with every citizen living in a different reality of their own making – and, upsettingly (but honestly), it doesn’t look like there’s a way out any time soon, at least for society as a whole. All we can control is what we can control, and Novak finds a wonderful way to tie back into the theme of individual responsibility by the film’s finale, without also acting like this will “change everything.”

Candor is at the core of Vengeance, and it’s what makes the movie leave as large an impact as possible. Some may say that Novak isn’t as “daring” a director as he is a writer – with the film feeling a tad “small” at times and not truly having a distinctive “visual style” – but when said writing is this thematically dense and thought-provoking, it’s hard to be too bothered.

Kudos too to the exceptional ensemble, stacked with talent from top-to-bottom. Novak himself is a lively lead – who can obviously easily handle comedy but also ably anchors the movie’s morally murky denouement – while the ever-reliable (and recently Emmy nominated) J. Smith Cameron earns cackles and cries as Abilene’s anguished yet occasionally amusing mother, Louanne Stephens delights as her ditzy grandma, and Holbrook finds the right balance of Texas coarseness and charisma to charm the audience.

Elsewhere, Ashton Kutcher may have less screen time, but sure as hell leaves a significant impression with what he’s got as a magnetic music producer, while the always-inviting Issa Rae is a joy here as well. But, at the end of the day, what makes or breaks Vengeance is that sterling script – one with a concept that, in anyone else’s hands, could’ve come across as preposterous or preachy. Thankfully, with B.J. Novak steering this ship, it’s not only authentically touching, but ultimately intellectually transcendent, too.

Get it on Apple TV

Vengeance is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

Vengeance: Trailer (Focus Features)
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