Movie Review: VENGEANCE Starring B.J. Novak, Isabella Amara, Nathaniel Augustson
Typically when I write a review, I’ll use a personal anecdote or try and come up with some witty or clever (or at least something I think is witty or clever) intro to draw people in. I haven’t been fired yet, so It works, I guess.
I haven’t been able to do that with Vengeance, though. One, I haven’t gone on some vengeance-seeking trip to bring justice to the murderer of an ex, so I don’t really have a relatable anecdote. Two, without giving away too much of the plot, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie take such a quick turn in terms of tone as Vengeance does – so I don’t know what I can relate it to.
Better known to The Office fans as Ryan Howard, BJ Novak’s directorial debut is mostly set in modern-day Texas, where Ben Manalowitz (Novak) travels after learning of the death of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), with whom he used to hook up. As it turns out, Abilene exaggerated their relationship to the point that her family believes they were in a committed relationship.
The majority of the film is a rather light-hearted fish-out-of-water tale, with the strictly urban New York native Ben trying to adjust to the vastly different lifestyle of West Texas. While he’s there, Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) shares his theory that Abilene was murdered. Skeptical of the idea, Ben, a writer for the New Yorker and aspiring podcaster, latches on to the idea of producing a podcast built around the plot: not one of vengeance, but of the idea of vengeance and justice that permeates American society. After a quick call with podcast producer Eloise (Issa Ray), Ben decides to stay with Abilene’s family for a couple of weeks.
Vengeance is billed as a black comedy/mystery, and for the most part lives up to its billing, especially the comedy side. Those familiar with The Office should be familiar with the humor, and surprisingly enough what seems to be an open-and-shut case unravels into a larger story.
Through his humor, and at times poignant interactions, Novak is able to craft a nearly brilliant story that’s occasionally bogged down by too many attempts at memorable one-liners. Although Novak does much of the heavy lifting, credit must also be given to the supporting cast, who does an excellent job. Holbrook does well as the desperate brother seeking the truth about his sister’s death, and J. Smith-Cameron is spot on as the grieving mother. Louanne Stephens, though, absolutely nails it as the grandmother and caricature of Texas culture. After 90 minutes, I was ready to walk out of the theater in a near-triumphant mood.
And then the last act hits. I can’t really divulge what happens so as to avoid spoilers, but I am not exaggerating when I say it changes the entire tone of the film. And it isn’t necessarily a bad shift, but it appeals to a different mood. In hindsight, I can’t say that the last act is totally unexpected; there is dialogue earlier that hints at what’s to come. Still, it’s quite jarring and essentially adds a third genre to the film.
All in all, it’s a solid directorial/writing debut from Novak. Ben is a flawed protagonist, and you may not always find yourself rooting for him. In the end, though, Novak does right by him, and I can’t help but be excited for what’s next from him.