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Underneath the steady, noisy onslaught of modern genre movies, there are films attempting to engage with the real world as we recognize and experience it. Rare are the films which seem at war, thematically, with themselves, but it’s this indulgence of actual ideas alongside their violent confrontation and arguable rejection that powers Vengeance. Writer-director-star B.J. Novak’s intriguing fish-out-of-water black comedy uses a true-crime angle as a comfortable framing device about myth, storytelling, social misunderstanding and dislocation, and how they all feed a new American rancor. If the end result is not always completely successful, Novak crafts an alluringly confounding work that confirms his intelligence and thoughtfulness as a filmmaker.
Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is a “blue check mark” writer for the New Yorker with loose aspirations of expanding his storytelling instincts into podcasting. He is also, per some cold-open, night-out banter with a likeminded friend (John Mayer, in a cameo), fairly rootless—a young professional for whom dating anyone longer than one month is, like the intended use of cookie dough, merely a suggestion.
When a girl with whom he had casually hooked up several times, Abby Shaw (Lio Tipton), is found dead of a drug overdose, Ben gets cornered by her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) into attending the funeral in West Texas. Her family, it turns out, believes Ben was her boyfriend. When Ty reveals his conviction, based only on his “gut,” that Abby was in fact murdered, Ben senses a chance to dig into the type of conspiracy-mongering which seems to be driving a lot of societal division.
Seizing on this pitch (a dead white girl being presented herein, not incorrectly, as “the holy grail of podcast” subjects), Ben’s producer friend Eloise (Issa Rae) offers up encouragement and feedback. As Ben is absorbed into the welcoming bosom of Abby’s extended family, including mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron) and sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), he undertakes interviews with various at-odds law enforcement agencies before connecting with other figures in Abby’s life, including record producer Quentin (Ashton Kutcher) and an old middle-school friend, Sancholo (Zach Villa), who’s drifted into drug dealing.
To hang Vengeance with the “calling card movie” tag isn’t entirely appropriate, since while this is Novak’s feature film directorial debut, he’s a well-established TV writer and episodic director who has also been a continuing presence in American households via heavy rotation reruns and streaming availability of The Office. But it could, or should, prove Novak capable of handling larger-budgeted fare, should he so desire.
His writing here is for the most part clear and purpose-driven. Only a couple scenes or ideas don’t connect; one strand finds characters using the same language to describe Abby, which is meant to signify one thing but actually tracks as another. And if he lapses on occasion into having characters simply deliver ideas plainly to one another, Novak also eschews low-hanging fruit characterizations, pulling comedy from sharp divisions in perspective rather than empty eccentricities.
As a filmmaker, Novak has a decent eye for composition, and communicating a story with background. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief, shooting New Mexico as a stand-in for Texas, does a good job of capturing desolate spaces, which help reinforce subtextual statements about the contrast between relative values of what is often seen as either empty or full.
As a director of actors, Novak’s tapping of his old Punk’d boss Kutcher is inspired, resulting in the latter’s best performance in years. He coaxes believably grounded turns out of the rest of his cast, too, abetted by understated dialogue. The multi-hyphenate also delivers a good performance. While he gives himself a couple good lines, which highlight Ben’s active mind, he also leans into moments of quiet reaction. The latter is particularly evident in a nice scene where he settles into Abby’s room, silently taking in the details of her personal belongings.
Even though it tells a simple story, Vengeance amply demonstrates that a film’s true ambition has nothing to do with budget or production scale. Among some of the movie’s heady notions the movie attempts to assay are the idea and consequences of people living in their own highly individualized spaces; the question of whether any truth can be embedded in pure intuition; and the empty distractions of collapsing civilization, in which culture is relegated to increasingly meaningless fragmentary morsels.
With this in mind, Vengeance tries to strike a balance between its investigatory plotting and broader sociological inventorying—to frequently uneven effect. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the former which suffers most. Crucially, the film’s big stabs at emotional payoff feel miscalculated, and slightly off-center.
Ben’s grappling with his preconceptions is well modulated and interwoven throughout—a strength of the film. But when he learns the truth about a crucial fact, it ignites an argument that quickly escalates and then unrealistically resolves, fueling a hurried final 20 minutes. To discuss the film’s ending, even fairly broadly, is to undercut a significant portion of what it wants to say. One element is utterly obvious, but the other is not, demanding a deeper unpacking of after-effect than is granted.
VENGEANCE - Official Trailer - In Theaters July 29
The end result is something which isn’t so much lost in the edit (though Novak’s use of three editors would seem to possibly indicate some level of exploration here) as just mis-framed. Would Vengeance benefit from a massive rethinking, and a specific moment of action being pulled forward to the end of its second act? Does it need only five to 10 more minutes? Or is it simply an idea fundamentally best served by the extra breathing room a limited series would afford, crammed instead into the too-small confines of a feature film?
The answer to those questions is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. But the tonal balance Novak achieves throughout his film offsets this concluding dissatisfaction and brands other shortcomings interesting missteps rather than true failures. Only Murders In The Building, which uses a podcast’s production to also examine human connection and isolation, has of course tackled some of these same themes. But Vengeance does so with greater perspicacity, and more emotional weight and resonance. Even if not all of it works, it’s a film which showcases a satirist with a uniquely self-inquisitive eye, and an unsettled soul.