The new movie Vengeance is very intelligent, it goes in unexpected directions, and it sticks with you. The problem is that it strains credulity in a weird way. But it’s still worth seeing.
We begin with a successful New York journalist named Ben Manalowitz, played by the movie’s writer-director, B.J. Novak. He and his friend (played by the singer John Mayer, well-known for being a cad) open the movie discussing their method of taking the names of hook-up-ready women and putting them in their phones in depersonalized code so they can remember who the women are. They do nothing but agree with each other. “One hundred percent,” each of them says to the other. They are, and are intended to be, gross and contemptible.
Ben dubs one such girl “Texas,” and as the movie begins in earnest, he’s in bed with a one-night stand when he gets a call from Texas’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook). She is dead, the brother says. She was in love with him. The funeral is on Thursday and Ty will be at the airport to pick Ben up. Ben doesn’t even know her name. Turns out it’s Abilene, Abby for short. Ben gets an idea—he can expand on his career by doing some sort of podcast about her, her family, and her end. She’s a “dead white girl,” the holy grail of podcasts, and she’s from a red state, so how exotic is that?
Things get even juicier when Ty informs Ben that Abby didn’t die of an opioid overdose. She was murdered. And he wants Ben to help him exact vengeance. Now, why Ty would want Ben’s help is far from clear, as his manliness, such as it is, just extends as far as objectifying women. But Ben tells Ty he wants to center a podcast on the murder, and Ty thinks that’s just great because the people on Reddit will get obsessed with it and will take vengeance on the murderer without their having to do it.
As the movie progresses, Ben begins to fall in love with Abby’s family. Her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is a no-nonsense person who can give the phrase “bless your heart” infinite shadings. Her nine-year-old brother seems so off Ty calls him “El Stupido,” but it turns out he’s a sad and soulful little boy riven with anxieties.
Abby’s two sisters show unexpected depth. Ben makes mention of Chekhov and his famous line about how if there’s a gun on stage in act one it has to go off in act three. When Abby’s sister Paris says she’s confused because there aren’t any guns in Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard, Ben has to admit he’s never read Chekhov, he’s only heard about the gun thing.
And he is captivated by a philosophical local named Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher) who has set up a music studio in the artsy town of Marfa not far away. Abby recorded there, and Ben learns she had a beautiful and soulful voice. What’s more, her supposedly sordid relationship with a local drug dealer actually dates back to childhood, when his mother wouldn’t let him read Harry Potter because it was Satanic so Abby would call him at night and read the books over the phone to him.
So this is a movie about an NPR type discovering that red staters are people too. Sounds horribly condescending. But that condescension is actually the subject of Vengeance. Ben keeps learning that every time he thinks he knows what’s going on, he actually has no idea—and his absolute certainty that he can get to the bottom of things marks him not as some kind of skeptical sage but rather as a fool.
Novak is a comic writer and performer best known for his work on The Office. He is following in the footsteps of Jordan Peele and Peele’s movie Get Out by writing and directing an entirely different kind of fare from the work that made him famous. Peele could have starred in Get Out—but for whatever reason he decided to find himself an actor who could do the job better than he could have, and he found one in Daniel Kaluuya, whose brilliance gave the movie surprising emotional depth. Novak should have done the same. It’s too bad he didn’t. Maybe on his next project, he’ll stay behind the camera and let someone else make his material look and work better.
And one hopes Novak will repair his rookie moviemaking mistakes. His villain does more monologuing than a Bond antagonist. And because he wants to show us the pleasures of ordinary daily life in Texas, Novak has us experience them through the eyes of Abby’s family. But would people stricken with grief at the untimely death of a twenty-something loved one really go have fun at the rodeo and go line dancing at a party?