Vengeance (2022); Directed by B.J. Novak
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 and 2000s influences. While some of these can be entertaining in their own right, Vengeance is something different, more about subcultural conflict than typical movie violence (though it does have some of that too).
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 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 Abilens, an aspiring singer, recorded with. He reminds me a little of The Dude in The Big Lebowski with his drawl, cowboy hat, and obscure philosophical musings.
The basic fish out of water theme is magnified to look at the larger societal forces that Ben and his newfound Texas frenemies represent. Ty remarks at one point that Ben looks like many of the characters in Schindler’s List, the closest anyone comes to mentioning his Jewish heritage. Many of the stereotypes Ben has about his hosts turn out to be accurate. They own many guns, they’re obsessed with rodeos, football, and eating out at the local Whataburger.
At the same time, there are some blatant attempts to defy the stereotypes, as Abilene’s sister Paris is something of an intellectual. One of the funnier lines is when Paris accuses Ben of cultural appropriation and he responds by saying that it’s cultural appropriation for someone like her to accuse him of cultural appropriation. This is funny wordplay, but also reveals a deeper truth –that educated, urbanites like Ben tend to believe that they have a monopoly on culture.
The investigation into Abigail’s death leads to encounters with Mexican gang members, incompetent local cops, and an assortment of two-fisted, hard-drinking locals. There’s a twist at the end that is possibly predictable, but still surprising in how it plays out.
So what does Vengeance ultimately have to say about New York hipsters and Texas rednecks? Nothing conclusive, which is a good thing. The movie deals with some complex themes about the divisive state of contemporary America and they aren’t going to be resolved in 100 minutes. However, Vengeance does provide some amusing and thoughtful insights into cultural stereotypes without really taking sides.