Directed by: B.J. Novak
Premise: A writer from New York City (B.J. Novak) travels to a small Texas town when a woman he knew dies under mysterious circumstances. The deceased woman’s family takes him in and he records a podcast while investigating her death.
What Works: Vengeance is a fish out of water story in which an urbanite travels to rural America. It’s a scenario we’ve seen time and again and often done badly. Vengeance brings a distinct perspective onto these kinds of stories, viewing it through the cultural and political divide that defines contemporary America. The filmmakers admirably swing for some profound observations and occasionally connect. The film is ultimately less about life in rural America and more about urban culture and how city dwellers regard the rural parts of the country. Ben is a writer for a major New York based magazine and he constantly underestimates these people and exploits their story and their grief to advance his career, always thinking about these people as sociological abstractions instead of people with lives of their own. At its sharpest, Vengeance examines the emptiness of contemporary life, the lack of human connection, and the cheap commodification of relationships. His journey to Texas brings Ben in contact with the despair plaguing America and how it takes the form of drug abuse. The connection between urban superficiality and rural gloom scratches at something thoughtful. The film includes an impressive central performance by B.J. Novak who is willing to make his character foolish and unlikable in many instances. Also impressive is Ashton Kutcher as a local businessman with a sharp perception of the culture.
What Doesn’t: The premise of Vengeance includes a huge implausibility. Ben gets a late night call from the brother of the deceased, who he’s never spoken to before, and agrees to get on a plane and fly to Texas to attend a funeral for a woman he can barely remember. There is no rational reason for him to do that and it is hard to believe that anyone would do it. Fortunately, this decision occurs early enough in the movie that the filmmakers mostly regain their credibility. The filmmakers set out to critique condescending urban liberal attitudes toward so-called “flyover country” but the early portions of Vengeance undermine that point. The Shaw family come across as stupid rubes. It’s not affectionate or ironic and the first third of Vengeance plays exactly as the kind of patronizing liberal hitjob that the filmmakers claim to critique. Here as well, the filmmakers gradually course correct and the portrait of the family gets more complex. However, in doing so the film includes late reveals about the family, and especially about the older brother and his motives, that undermine the premise of the whole story.
Disc extras: None.
Bottom Line: Vengeance is an ambitious movie. It is spread a little too thin and elements of the story don’t make sense but the heart of the movie is in touch with this particular cultural moment and Vengeance is a promising feature film directorial debut from B.J Novak.
Episode: #930 (December 11, 2022)