Vengeance, directed by B.J. Novak: Culture Clash Between New York City and Rural Texas
Vengeance, the 2022 comedy-mystery drama starring and directed by B.J. Novak, is a surprisingly compelling and thoughtful film. Based on the title and seeing the trailer, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s another thriller in the desert entry, with the usual Tarantino, Coen Brothers, and other 90s, 2000s influences. While some of these can be entertaining in their own right, Vengeance is something different.
Novak is Ben Manalowitz, a smug New York City hipster who we see in the first scene at a rooftop party in most likely Brooklyn, sharing cynical zingers about the pointlessness of relationships and monogamy with his equally vacuous and intoxicated buddies.
Novak’s character, who is actually named Ben, reminds me a little of Ben Stiller, especially in some of the work he’s done for Noah Baumbach, such as Greenberg. He manages to offset some of his arrogance and smugness with a self-awareness and at least a latent desire to improve. In Vengeance, this is a gradual process that has him transplanted in an extremely unlikely place for someone like him, rural Texas.
After getting a phone call from a distraught man telling Ben that his “girlfriend” Abilene has just died, Ben at first doesn’t even know who she is. She was, in fact, one of many women he casually slept with/dated. Somehow, Ty Shaw, the dead woman’s brother, convinces Ben to fly to an absurdly remote town of Abilene (the deceased girl was apparently named after the town). That Ben would take the bait to attend the funeral of a virtual stranger is a contrivance you just have to accept.
Ty and his family are about as stereotypical redneck Texans as you could imagine. Ty quickly reveals his plot to avenge his sister’s death. She officially died of an overdose, but the family is seeking a scapegoat, and the most likely suspects are a Mexican cartel. Ben gets the idea of pitching the scenario to a podcast producer, Eloise (Issa Rae). Skeptical at first, she then latches onto the appeal of a “dead white girl” and the premise is set in motion.
Ashton Kutcher plays Quentin Sellers, an enigmatic music producer who reminded me a little of The Dude in The Big Lebowski with his drawling philosophical musings.