“Vengeance” is a highly enjoyable, engaging comedy/mystery film. The picture has a shock of a twist ending that elevates the movie’s impact. With characters that could easily have descended into caricatures, the film’s perfect casting and thoughtful screenplay make you feel the humanity in these particular Texans.
The story begins simply enough as a conversation between Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) and his friend, John (John Mayer—yes, the musician) at a party. They are talking about sexual partners. Ben has nicknames for them in his phone. After the party, he returns to his apartment in Brooklyn where he hooks up with a woman.
While they are asleep in bed, Ben gets a phone call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook). He tells Ben that his girlfriend Abby (Abilene, portrayed in various media by Lio Tipton) has died in Texas and tells Ben that he has to come to her funeral.
Flabbergasted, Ben goes through his phone’s contacts to see who Abby was. She apparently exaggerated the depth of their relationship to her family.
Ben nevertheless flies to West Texas for the funeral. There, he makes generic remarks that are taken the right way by the family. Abby died of an opiate overdose, and the family members who speak say that she would never even take an Advil.
In Ty’s truck, he reveals that it is up to Ben and him to achieve vengeance for whoever “murdered” Abby. Ben is appalled but suddenly sees a way to turn this into an opportunity.
Making Ty stop the truck, Ben, a writer for The New Yorker and an aspiring podcaster, calls Eloise (Issa Rae), who runs the podcast “American Moment.” He pitches the story as one set in an isolated area between the coasts that spawns conspiracy theories (such as Abby’s “murder”) and full of unique characters to populate the story with their beliefs and aspirations. Eloise agrees to the story idea and Ben is off and running.
Ben stays with the Shaw family. The various members include mom Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), daughters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), Granny Carole (Louanne Stephens), and son El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel). They are steeped in Texas history like the Alamo and gun culture. They worship Whataburger.
He meets with the gang leader Sancholo (Zach Villa), who is more bluster than substance. He cared deeply for Abby and had no involvement with her death.
Abby had recorded at Factory Studios in Marfa. There Ben meets Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), the music producer and head of the studio. Quentin exudes Texas charm and spouts an expansive philosophy of life and man’s place in it. Ben has a chance to see performance tapes which Abby made.
The locals believe that the police are useless. As Ben is referred to jurisdiction after jurisdiction among law enforcement, he realizes that Abby’s corpse was placed in an area where multiple jurisdictions overlapped so everyone could pass the buck on the investigation.
When Ben’s Prius explodes with what appears to be a car bomb, a family secret is revealed and he finally gains access to Abby’s phone, things become darker fast.
I had to wonder watching this film if it is going to be difficult to market. What is its target audience? There are some initial laughs at the expense of the family’s characters and Ben as a stranger in a strange land. But the comedy is not consistent, as it is set against thoughtful and poignant moments where character relationships are emphasized. The mystery underlying the action is often not the focus, although it ends up being pivotal.
That being said, this movie is a winner on many fronts. The screenplay, written by Novak who also directed, is a marvel of taking us along unexpected paths, not only for Ben but for us. The empathy that is created as you get to know the Shaw family and the deceased Abby through her clips is well-earned. The interweaving of the journalist/big city and the rural Texas environments is seamlessly created.
The denouement could not have been more shocking. I may have audibly gasped. To the credit of the screenwriters, this was preceded by a scene which I felt was too cliché to be a fitting conclusion. So I was fooled into expecting something predictable but which turned out to be utterly surprising.
I also appreciated the subtle commentary on the assumptions that Ben had made about the Texans and their culture. Ben also has to deal with his approach to sexual partners as disposable commodities. The use of technology in this sometimes rough-and-tumble setting provided its own statement on its growing ubiquity in our culture.
The casting is perfection itself. Even with small parts, such as Granny Carole and El Stupido, the performers completely embody their characters in believable ways. Only good actors could have carried this off successfully and prevented the family members and locals from descending into caricatures.
Ashton Kutcher gives a performance for the ages. On a side note, I did not realize how tall he is. He is Quentin Sellers through and through. Charming, sly and slippery all at once, his fancy suits complete his portrait as a man who knows exactly what he is doing at all times.
Besides Kutcher’s suits, the excellent costuming is a combination of casual and traditional Western wear. It is interesting to see Ben’s costumes change over time as he starts to wear more casual local clothing.
The editing is a key to making this film a success. The scenes of life on the East Coast with Eloise and her team are appropriately placed so that they do not disturb the pace or flow of the picture. The change in tone from comedic to dramatic moments are well-handled.
There is some violence and relatively speaking, other than Ben’s hook-up in Brooklyn, no sexual content. This is not, despite what the trailer may look like, a comedy to take children to see. It is appropriate for teens though.
“Vengeance” is a thoughtful film that will make you reflect on the assumptions that you make in your everyday life. Highly recommended.
Four and a half out of 5 stars
VENGEANCE, the directorial debut from writer and star B.J. Novak (“The Office”), is a darkly comic thriller about Ben Manalowitz, a journalist and podcaster who travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was hooking up with.
Cast: B.J. Novak, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron
Directed by: B.J. Novak
Written by: B.J. Novak
"Vengeance": A highly enjoyable and engaging comedy-mystery
There are some initial laughs at the expense of the family’s characters and Ben as a stranger in a strange land. But the comedy is not consistent, as it is set against thoughtful and poignant moments where character relationships are emphasized. The mystery underlying the action is often not the focus, although it ends up being pivotal.
That being said, this movie is a winner on many fronts. The screenplay, written by Novak who also directed, is a marvel of taking us along unexpected paths, not only for Ben but for us.