“Vengeance,” written, directed by and starring B.J. Novak, is a murder mystery, told from the perspective of an East Coast journalist investigating a supposed opioid overdose in West Texas. The film attempts to deconstruct cultural stereotypes central to the American identity, through the story of a family plagued with grief turning to an outsider to find justice. This movie is also a comedy.
In a cringe-filled turn of events, Ben (B.J. Novak), a Manhattan-based journalist travels to a remote Texan town to attend the funeral of a girl named Abilene (Lio Tipton) who he barely knew. While her whole family has been led to believe the two were in a serious relationship, Ben, a strong proponent of hook-up culture, hardly remembers Abilene. Despite his visit being based on awkward miscommunication and lies, after a discussion with Abilene’s older brother (Boyd Holbrook) Ben decides to extend his stay in Texas and build a podcast around the conspiracies Abilene’s family clings to make sense of her death.
The arc of the film is split between the literal investigation of who and what killed Abilene, and Ben’s recurring realization that people, no matter where they are or what they believe, are alike. The reason this realization has to happen over and over again is to truly hammer home, through monologues, arguments and physical violence, that these wacky Southerners may not all be stupid, but they aren’t all geniuses either. They all do good and bad things for moral and immoral reasons, but most of all, they, along with everyone else, are much more than the characters they are too easily dubbed.
There really is no middle ground when a movie takes the time to philosophize. Some viewers will watch it and see the conversation as shallow and obvious. Others will find it meaningful, and maybe take something away from it. And some viewers will just think the movie is wrong and annoying. This is the reality “Vengeance” has to face being released to as wide an audience as it has been. The film is full of what some would call big talk. Grandiose monologues, mostly from Ashton Kutcher’s character, who, might I add, featured the best acting Kutcher has done in years, about the essence of our being or the moralities of fame or even the major downsides of a cultural consciousness made up of hot takes. Broad analyses of our society stated matter of factly.
I, as a viewer with a life experience far more similar to Ben’s (and B.J. Novak’s) than the Texan’s, found Kutcher’s character, a small-town Texan music producer, to be fascinating. He may not have been providing the most original conclusions, but I felt a real insight was given into the lives of rural Southerners and their interactions with 21st-century technology. But I just cannot speak to how an actual Southerner, or even Midwesterner, would react to his explications. Maybe they would view the dialogue as belittling or exaggerated, maybe they’d like it as much as I did. Most likely though, every demographic audience would internally have massively varying levels of enjoyment and agreement. That is literally the point of the movie.
Taking a step back into the more literal aspects of the movie, “Vengeance” is clever and extremely funny, with a one-of-a-kind cast of characters, the biggest downfall of which is Ben, who never managed to be particularly likable; but everyone else, from Ben’s producer to Abilene’s childhood friend to Abilene herself, were memorable characters with plenty to do. It also features an excellent and exciting (maybe) murder mystery that until late in act three had no obvious conclusion, and that has a satisfying wrap-up with no established characters left out.
Every audience could get something out of this movie. It masterfully tackles a lot of genres and a complex story taking place in two opposing worlds, all while managing to be funny throughout. Plus, what a great cast.