Amusing, perceptive and full of surprises, B.J. Novak’s directorial debut “Vengeance” (opening Friday) weaves familiar tropes—the culture-clash comedy, the true-crime mystery, the road-to-redemption narrative—into a meta-critique of these very concepts. If this adventurous and idea-packed film can be faulted for anything, it’s having its comic-thriller cake and eating it too.
Novak, who also wrote the screenplay, stars as Ben Manalowitz, a New Yorker writer, social critic and general embodiment of the East Coast elite. When, in an early scene, he complains to his editor (a delightful Issa Rae) that he’s feeling creatively flummoxed in his pursuit of a zeitgeist-capturing podcast, his malaise is certainly a first-world problem.
Ben is also a proud personification of hookup culture, and “Vengeance” plots a convergence between his sexual pursuits and his professional ambitions. It turns out that Abilene Shaw, a singer from West Texas who tried to make it in the New York music scene—and became one of Ben’s casual conquests in the process—has been found dead from an apparent drug overdose back home. Her brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), and her family have reason to believe Ben meant far more to Abilene than a night or two of drinks and sex. Ty ropes Ben into flying into Texas for Abilene’s funeral, and he convinces him to help avenge what he believes is Abilene’s “murder.”
This, Ben discovers, could be the podcast he’s been waiting for: a spin on the “dead white girl” true-crime procedural whose subtext is the stubborn, conspiratorial mythos of rural America in 2021. As Ben gamely tries to unravel what may or may not be his hookup’s mysterious passing, he interviews locals both in and outside of Abilene’s immediate circle, including her pugnacious grandmother (a wonderful Louanne Stephens) and her record producer (a scene-stealing Ashton Kutcher), whose philosophical insights belie his hillbilly environs.
This is one of the most likable aspects of “Vengeance:” the extent to which Ben’s instinctual judgments about the God-fearing, family-first, Second Amendment-espousing people of West Texas dissolve when he actually gets to know them. The “characters” of his podcast, initially conceived as fodder for his lazy big-city prejudices, take on dimensions. In the spirit of many a great mystery, everything is a hall of mirrors and nobody is as they seem. “Vengeance” ranks alongside Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” another crime tale with a lot more on its mind, as a dark comedy that tries to understand contemporary Texas in all of its contradictions.
Admittedly, “Vengeance” follows a fairly schematic plot arc, and its conclusions are presented didactically. As a screenwriter, Novak has a pedant’s tendency to express every idea verbally, even the ones that might be better left unspoken. But this is an ambitious and postmodern film, one that grows headier as it moves along. Its ultimate target is not the buried secrets behind an ingénue’s death—and there are some—but the exploitation embedded in this quest. The movie deconstructs and skewers the very process it presents for our entertainment, a have-it-both-ways copout that would be more egregious if its takeaways, and takedowns, weren’t so persuasive and necessary.
For all its reaching across cultural aisles for a shared humanity, “Vengeance” is ultimately a cynical film for a cynical age. In this regard, Novak, if not Ben, has found his zeitgeist-capturing art.
“Vengeance” opens Friday at Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, among other area theaters.