Written and Directed by BJ Novak.
Starring BJ Novak, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Isabella Amara, Eli Bickel, Grayson Berry, Ben Whitehair, Gonzalo Robles, and Clint Obenchain.
A radio host from New York City attempts to solve the murder of a girl he hooked up with and travels down south to investigate the circumstances of her death and discover what happened to her.
In vengeance, BJ Novak’s popular podcaster/writer Ben Manalowitz finds himself traveling from New York City to middle-of-nowhere Texas, attending the funeral and eulogizing the death of his aspiring singer girlfriend Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton). However, the circumstances are anything but ordinary. Ben is pressured into making the trip by Abilene’s brother Tyler (Boyd Holbrook) over a late-night phone call where the former does n’t seem to recognize Abilene’s name from her. That’s because Ben is a hook-up guy who doesn’t see the point in monogamy. He also does not seem to realize when one of these women (they mostly go into his phone from him under dehumanizing labels reducing them to a single talent or personality traits) perceives their dynamic from him as a serious relationship.
Self-absorbed and woefully missing the point, Ben also believes there is a story here about America’s identity, the correlations between mythology and conspiracy, and a good old-fashioned murder mystery set amongst a backdrop of problematic yet well-meaning Texans deliciously right there to be transformed into larger-than-life comedic characters serving the story. He’s perfectly comfortable exploiting the community and immediate family surrounding a woman he didn’t actually love for some more fame and to pretentiously be seen as an intellectual that got to the bottom of America’s rotten core.
This all comes about when several friends and family of Abilene swear up and down that she would never go anywhere near drugs, let alone enough to overdose, and had to have been murdered. In fairness, considering that before her death, her body was dragged to an area with no cell service that crosses into four different territories (meaning that local law enforcement, border patrol, and more can keep kicking the case back and forth to one another without making a real effort to solve it), they have a point.
However, Ben sees an impoverished, uneducated community in denial and refusing to accept the truth (which is different from the facts in one of the film’s many intriguing provocations). It could also be argued that he also has a point, as we meet Abilene’s family, which amounts to most Southern stereotypes. Put it this way, a scene of black comedy depicts a 10-year-old child (referred to as El Stupido because he doesn’t understand Spanish) coming into Ben’s guest room asking for help unjamming a handgun. Not to mention, most of these people seem to have very shallow life ambitions whenever they are not being wowed by eating at Whataburger.
BJ Novak also writes and directs vengeance (marking his debut), smartly homing in on the characters and less about the murder investigation (which is somewhat easy to solve for anyone familiar with movies). There’s a line from Abilene (a performance given through screens) mentioning “heart sees the heart,” and it’s not hard to see the heart in any of these characters despite their shortcomings and questionable behavior. Even as Ben looks through Abilene’s laptop and revisits previous text conversations, there’s a sense of shame and regret that he ignored her emotions and needs from her, never stopping to assert that he was n’t looking for anything serious. There’s a wave of responsible guilt that crashes over him and conflicts with his misguided career move of turning this into a broader picture of America.
There are also some pleasant supporting turns here, ranging from Issa Rae’s handler and superior to Ben and Ashton Kutcher as a recording executive that forces Ben to look inward regarding what he is trying to accomplish. It’s also shocking that in a movie littered with darkly hilarious bits, Ashton Kutcher is one nailing a dramatic role. vengeance poses plenty of thoughtful questions, but does someone get lost tying it all together with an ending that feels rushed that also leaves some of its themes missing a sense of depth that should be there. Otherwise, it’s a solid calling card from BJ Novak. who clearly has a lot to say as a filmmaker. He deserves more opportunities to do so.
Flickering Myth Rating – Movie: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com