At the risk of damning an impressively strong debut with faint praise, B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance” is perhaps the best possible movie someone could make out of a murder-mystery that starts with John Mayer standing on the rooftop bar of a Soho House (where he’s waxing philosophical about the pointlessness of monogamy in a world so fractured that people have been reduced to mere concepts, like “Becky Gym,” “Sarah Airplane Bathroom,” or any of the actual names he’s assigned to the scores of semi-anonymous women in his phone), but doesn’t end with the musician dead in a ditch somewhere.
In fact, Mayer never shows up again. He sticks around just long enough for you to assume the worst about what’s to come — oh yay, the other, other guy from “The Office” remade “Swingers” for the Tinder set, and cast someone who once referred to his dick as a white supremacist in the Vince Vaughn role — and then recedes into the background of a wickedly sharp film that satirizes our rush to judgment in a society where unprecedented chaos has forced people to rely on the stabilizing confidence of their own convictions.
Whatever you think of Novak, or even if you never think of him at all, there’s no doubt that he knows what he’s doing here. He knows that it’s hard to root for a rich and famous white Harvard alum who’s got enough chutzpah to star in his own first movie, just as he knows that most people will suspect he made it on a whim instead of white-knuckling his way through it for years on end. And so he’s leaned into the skid, leveraging the sheer insufferableness of his own project (along with the specific appeal of his “Buster Keaton meets Ira Glass” screen persona) into a very funny movie that’s strong enough to lift the crushing weight of our worst assumptions about each other and shine a light onto the regrets that fester underneath.
And hoo-boy does “Vengeance” sound insufferable. Once the movie reveals its maddeningly clever premise — equal parts “why has God forsaken us?” and “why didn’t I think of that?” — you might find yourself desperate for Mayer and his “David Duke cock” to come back and keep talking. Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a self-absorbed staff writer for the New Yorker who’s so eager to have a voice that he doesn’t really care what he says with it. Much like his close personal friend John Mayer, Ben merely sees other people as concepts, and can’t abide the idea of a meaningful relationship with someone who has their own agency or perspective. I mean, how would that even work?
Maybe that’s why he only starts fixating on Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton, their performance confined to iPhone video clips) after she has a fatal overdose in a Texas oil field, when he can make whatever he wants out of her memory. In life, she was just some doe-eyed singer chick who Ben half-remembered hooking up with a couple of times. In death, she’s the perfect subject for the “Serial”-esque podcast that falls into Ben’s lap when Abby’s brother (an exquisite Boyd Holbrook as Ty) calls him in the middle of the night and strong-arms Novak’s avocado milquetoast Brooklyn millennial into flying to the heart of “No Country for Old Men” Texas for the funeral.
For some reason, Abby’s gun-toting, rodeo-loving family thinks that Ben was her boyfriend. For some reason, Ty thinks that his sister was murdered. And for some reason, Ben decides to help him get to the bottom of it.
What starts as a fish-out-of-water story about a New York Jew in #MAGAland, full of broad characterizations (Ty says that Ben reminds him of his least favorite Liam Neeson revenge thriller, “Schindler’s List”) and sitcom-like misunderstandings (e.g. the cringe-worthy scene where Ben is forced to give an impromptu speech at Abby’s funeral) soon gives way to something a bit more curious. The transition begins to take hold from the moment that Ben starts recording his time in Texas, collecting audio for the podcast he pitches to his producer friend at NPR or whatever this movie’s fictional stand-in for it is called.
Eloise is played by Issa Rae, who’s very good at her job of convincing us that “Dead White Girl” is something that could actually make it to air. “Not every white guy needs a podcast,” she tells Ben, but turning Abby’s death into content is the only way he can mine any meaning from it. So he pledges to find and identify the person who killed her. And what if she wasn’t actually murdered? “I will find the generalized societal force responsible, and I will define it.”
Imagine “Under the Silver Lake” remade as a crowd-pleasing segment of “This American Life” and you’ll have a rough idea as to how “Vengeance” unfolds from there, as our not-so-humble narrator begins to look under the surface of our hopelessly divided country and see beyond his own shadow for the first time in his life. The discoveries cut both ways. Not only does the Shaw family defy Ben’s condescending expectations for such red state folk, but listening to them talk — recorder always in hand — opens his mind to things he never realized about his own place in the world.
That proves doubly true of Ben’s conversations with local music producer Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher in full tech-guru mode), whose Marfa studio might seem cultish if not for how lucidly he speaks to the fragmentation of our social fabric, and how even the smartest of people will seek refuge in myth once their civilization abdicates any greater responsibility for collective truth. In some places, that means perpetuating conspiracies about the Deep State and stolen elections. In others, that means drawing thematic connections between disparate events and punctuating them with ads for Mailchimp.
Of course, there isn’t any doubt over which group Novak is addressing here. “Vengeance” is clearly made by and for the kind of “coastal elites” who haven’t been within spitting distance of a Republican since Act II of “Hamilton,” an audience this film often flatters, sometimes condemns, and always speaks to in a shared lingua franca. If Novak’s script takes great pains to subvert our expectations of its Southern characters, it typically does that by playing into them at the same time (a tactic enabled by the genius of casting Kentucky native J. Smith-Cameron as Abby’s warmly bullshit-intolerant mom, the “Succession” star wrapping her savage wit around a core of countrified truth).
The results can be laugh-out-loud funny even when they’re schematic, and vice-versa. Case in point: The bit when Granny Carole (a riotous Louanne Stephens) gives Ben the stink-eye when he gets a Raya notification, not because this Whataburger-worshiping “Friday Night Lights” extra doesn’t know what that is, but rather because she can’t believe some wannabe podcaster — “Joe Rogan meets Seth Rogen” — was allowed to register for the site. Abby’s little brother is a deranged yokel named El Stupido (Elli Abrams Bickel) who sleeps with a loaded Glock instead of a stuffed animal, but does so on the floor next to Abby’s bed because he’s a sweet kid who’s scared of ghosts even now that his sister has become one. Abby’s sister Kansas City (Dove Cameron) is a Tik-Tok obsessed wannabe celebrity who’s excited by Ben’s relative power in the media world… and sees right through his intentions for the podcast.
And then there’s Ty, a wonderful character who could easily have been a himbo doofus in lesser hands. “Vengeance” is only able to get away with so much — possibly even murder? — because of how well Holbrook keeps us guessing whether the story of Abby’s death is much simpler than it appears, or much more complicated. Even when the jokes miss the mark or the central mystery seems too easily solved, “Vengeance” is sustained by the question of what its characters mean to each other; a question asked sweetly but shrouded by an ever-growing darkness that allows the film to wander into dangerous territory by the end, as cinematographer Lyn Moncrief gradually chips away at the camerawork’s streaming-ready sheen until his images assume the grit of a border town neo-noir.
If that slow-burn sourness never feels the least bit forced, perhaps that’s because Texas has long been home to stories about people using each other’s memories for personal motivation. Remember the Alamo? But what use are we to each in a world so atomized into separate truths that people can mean anything to anyone, and therefore nothing at all? It’s a modern idea that “Vengeance” successfully explores in a hard-boiled context, Novak’s movie held together by the unexpected overlap it finds between those two dimensions.
Nowhere is that more clever or damning than in the sequence where Ben interviews the various authorities who passed the buck on investigating Abby’s death, all of them (local cops, border cops, highway cops, etc.) claiming that the corpse wasn’t found in their jurisdiction. Everyone gets their turn, everyone has their take, and by the time her case has been run through the news cycle, nobody seems to care about the victim at the center of it anymore. She’s just another season of “Serial” waiting to happen. Unless, that is, Ben is able to write a better ending for Abby’s story — unless he’s willing to find his own measure of truth in it.
“Vengeance” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on Friday, July 29.