B.J. Novak Unpacks That Shocking ‘Vengeance’ Ending: ‘Is America Going to Heal?’

Writer-director Novak explains to IndieWire why the brutally bloody ending was "inevitable" for the thriller rooted in a divided America.
screenshot/Focus Features

[Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Vengeance.”]

B.J. Novak is waiting for the message of “Vengeance” to be made obsolete. While the filmmaker’s feature directorial debut, a Shakespearian story of revenge, is rife with Quentin Tarantino references, Woody Allen-esque banter, and a nod to Jordan Peele’s masterful transcendence of genre, writer-director Novak wondered if its message of a divided America would eventually be irrelevant.

Sadly, the opposite seems to be true.

“Vengeance” stars as Novak as Ben Manalowitz, a New Yorker journalist looking to launch a podcast with a multi-hyphenate producer, played by Issa Rae. Ben begins investigating the death of past hook-up Abilene (Lio Tipton) after receiving a strange phone call from Abilene’s brother (Boyd Holbrook). Ben travels to West Texas, where Abilene’s relatives are convinced Ben was her full-on boyfriend in New York City and Ben begins to wonder if Abilene really overdosed or if she was murdered. J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara, Elli Bickle, Ashton Kutcher, and John Mayer star in the ensemble thriller that hinges on the perceived stereotypes with conspiracy theories and coastal elitism.

“As I wrote the script and prepped the movie, I thought, ‘Is the moment of this going to pass? Is America going to heal?,'” Novak told IndieWire during a recent interview. “How wrong I was, that it only became more topical as we filmed it in terms of the division and chaos of the country, spiritually.”

It also only became exacerbated by the 2020 election that occurred right in the middle of filming, with the “Vengeance” production spanning New Mexico and Texas.

“Obviously we’re a Hollywood production, so there’s a lot of blue state actors and a red state crew filming in New Mexico and small places in Texas,” Novak explained. “I remember reminding people the day before the election, I spoke to the departments and I said, ‘I just want to remind everyone that with the election tomorrow, we are in oil country and not everyone will share your political views. It is absolutely fine to do what you may with that. It’s fine to express your opinions if that’s your choice. Just be mindful, whatever that means to you, that you are not in a bubble.'”

Yet Novak confirmed the cathartic ending of “Vengeance” — one that shows Ben (Novak) taking matters into his own hands while lazily corrupt law enforcement overlooks the glaring global situation of illegal drug trades, the exploitative nature of seeking stardom, and a family’s refusal to admit the truth — was the only “inevitable” conclusion for the timely Blumhouse-produced feature, now in theaters.

“I was actually more concerned with hiding it because to me, it felt like the only place for this movie to end,” Novak said. “So the fact that audiences are a little shaken by it, don’t quite know what to make of it at first, is very exciting for me. It means I did pull off what I wanted it to.”

The finale sequence could be viewed as a dream scenario, tying together Novak’s inspiration from working with Quentin Tarantino in “Inglorious Basterds.”

“It is a complex country we live in right now. It’s a complex world. And morality is complex and getting lost,” Novak said. “The way to take my character from point A to point B, point B is a very shocking place, surprising place. I like when movies or TV shows go a little further than you thought they could. It leaves you with something to think about after the movie is over.”

That head-scratching double take is exactly what Novak tried to emulate from fellow “brilliant” writer-director Peele, whose latest blockbuster “Nope” premiered one week prior to “Vengeance.”

“I think the reason Jordan Peele is the best is because, I’m biased, he comes from comedy. And he’s the best at comedy!,” Novak said. “I think comedy is the secret weapon of all non-comedies. [Martin] Scorsese, nobody even notices how funny he is because he’s so good at everything else. Meryl Streep is funny even though she’s the greatest dramatic actress. Jordan Peele, his movies are filled with comedy but you barely notice it because he integrates it so brilliantly into everything else. So to me, the inspiration of Jordan Peele is, I see a comedy person making it in the dramatic world.”

Will there be a Peele-Novak collaboration on the horizon?

“I can only dream,” Novak said. Much like, it seems, his cliffhanger ending for “Vengeance.” But one thing is for sure: There’s more Novak to come. “I’m working on the next script right now and it’s even more ambitious than this one,” the director said. “I just hope someone wants to make it with me.”

A Focus Features release, “Vengeance” is now in theaters. 

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