At first I almost brushed this off because of that clichéd title, but I was curious when I learned that it’s The Office-alum B.J. Novak’s directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay and plays the lead role, quite the triple threat. Vengeance is part fish-out-of-water dark comedy and part detective story, which in and of itself is a unique combination. Podcasts are still all the rage in 2022, especially amongst younger people, so Novak seems to have captured the zeitgeist about current media trends while telling a classic whodunnit.
Set primarily in Texas, Novak opens the movie with a woman dying in an open oil field with an iPhone in hand. Then we’re transported to NYC where his character Ben Manalowitz lives as a single 30-something. Ben and his buddy, played by singer John Meyer in a rooftop party Not sure if this is Mayer’s acting debut but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him in a movie. Within 10 minutes or so, we find out Ben is an aspiring podcaster in search of a good story and in that pursuit, he has no time for relationships. He’s one of those know-it-all hipster who’s full of himself. He engages in casual sex with women he barely knows or care to know. Then suddenly he gets a call in the middle of the night that Abilene, a girl he once hooked up with, has just been found dead.
For a first-time writer/director, Novak certainly has a chop in storytelling and setting up a good pace to tell it. I was intrigued right away by the premise, even though I don’t find Ben particularly likable. As soon as he arrives in Texas, Ben is immediately welcomed with open arms by Abilene’s family during her funeral. Her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) is certain her death isn’t just a simple OD-case and is hellbent on revenge, hence the title.
Those expecting a lot of shoot-em-up action might be disappointed, but I for one am glad it’s not that kind of movie. There is actually not that much revenge action but more dialog-driven, offering commentary and insights about the increasingly divided state of America, particularly between the North and South. As someone who didn’t grow up in the US, it’s fascinating to see certain stereotypes of New Yorkers vs. Texans, which are told from Ben’s biased perspective.
Ben is so hellbent on scoring career-making hit story that he’s willing to stay in Texas to investigate Abilene’s death, collaborating with a high-powered producer Eloise (Issa Rae) whom he’d been pitching to. Novak also got some good performances from his supporting cast, particularly Holbrook and surprisingly Ashton Kutcher as a smooth-talking music producer. I haven’t been impressed by Kutcher’s acting generally but he’s quite good and perhaps the most memorable role he’s done so far.
The script is pretty solid and engaging, Novak is able to balance the dark comedy and mystery pretty seamlessly. At first though, I wasn’t sure what this movie is about or what Novak is trying to say, but by halfway through, I was pretty absorbed by it all so I was fully invested in the character’s journey. The philosophical dialog offers some food for thought and some of the jokes are pretty funny, particularly when Ty starts talking about Liam Neeson movies, which is pretty meta considering Holbrook has been in two movies with Neeson: A Walk Among the Tombstones and Run All Night.
Thankfully, this movie is NOT a run-of-the-mill violent revenge thriller like Taken. It’s a much more introspective and thought-provoking film that’s more than meets the eye. I also commend Novak for crafting a twisty finale that I didn’t see coming and for crafting a satisfying arc for his character. Overall this is an impressive debut from Novak who wore many hats here. I think his future as a filmmaker is a bright one going forward.
Have you seen VENGEANCE? What did you think?