Vengeance is the directorial debut from B.J. Novak, an actor and major producer for The Office, who has also been involved in a number of other notable projects throughout the years. Novak plays Ben, a journalist turned podcaster who displays a stereotypical New Yorker apathy and selfishness as we are introduced to his character hanging at a party with a friend (played in a cameo by singer John Mayer). They callously comment about people who date for longer than a month, and they scroll through a number of women like slices of meat at the butcher.
The plot is incited when the Texan family of one of Ben’s former hookups calls to inform him that the girl is dead. They ask him to come to the funeral, thinking they had a very close relationship. Against his instincts, he flies down to West Texas, where the deceased’s brother (Boyd Holbrook) informs Novak of the certainty he has that the death was actually a murder. Desperate for a story to fuel his podcasting ambitions, Novak decides that the conspiracy theory-laden mind of the West Texan can provide an insight into a part of America and why so many are willing to believe nonsensical things against all evidence. Yet as his time in Texas lengthens, his prejudices are challenged and and his way of thinking gets reshaped.
As you might expect, this satirical comedy is full of themes about mythmaking, story-telling, the cultural and partisan divide in America, and our fight for identity in an increasingly cluttered and despondent world. The comedy is often sharp, and there are many a great scene, though Vengeance doesn’t always come together in a satisfactory whole. Some of the script’s weakest points see the film surrender to a more stereotypical plot outline, and Novak’s character goes through the beats of complicating his condescending preconceptions and forming friendships with the Texans he encounters.
One can sense that Novak has a lot of specific thoughts in mind. He perfectly lampoons the coastal journalist who comes to American heartland to find “insight” but ends up delivering a lot of trumped-up drivel. His depiction of Texans also pivots between over-the-top and sympathetic. Sometimes the characters behave like cartoons, with a 9-year-old kid running down the hall of his home with a pistol or others blowing a car up purely because someone is a UT fan instead of a Texas Tech fan. But Novak also shows that there is a real love and pride in the culture of Texas, which stands in for any culture in America as viewed by an outsider.
Ironically, for a film centered around solving a murder, it is the mystery aspect of the film that is the weakest. The investigation feels forgotten for a decent chunk of the film, and some of its twists feel unearned. The clash between the weaker structural aspects of Novak’s script and some amazing individual scenes weakens Vengeance.
Texas is conveyed in all of its beauty and grandeur. One of the film’s great moments is a commentary on a Texas sunset where Novak begins to record a wordy description before deciding to cut to the quick and say “It’s just f*cking beautiful.” This is one among many remarkable moments of insight, and along with them are some wonderful lines of dialogue and insight into the human experience. This is perhaps epitomized by Ashton Kutcher‘s character, one of the most interesting and compelling that Kutcher has played in a long time, allowing him to give perhaps a career-best performance. The scene where Novak meets Kutcher’s character is absolutely captivating, and every bit of dialogue from Kutcher’s character keeps your eyes and ears fixed to the screen.
While Vengeance has its weaknesses, there is enough compelling about the movie to suggest that Novak making films is an absolute positive. For every sloppy or cumbersome choice he makes, he offers another moment of real humanity. There is a simple country philosophy that underlies many moments in the film, providing some good quotables. In a country that often feels divided, broken, and full of noise, Vengeance suggests some places of common ground, or at least a way for us to learn to listen to each other a little better.