TEXAS, USA — You’ve gotta give B.J. Novak some credit: The Massachusetts-born multihyphenate best known for droll asides as a B-tier “The Office” character appears to realize how odd it is to see him leading a Texas-set murder mystery, to say nothing of our skepticism that he’s written and directed the dang thing, too.
To be sure, he’s given more thought – much more – to the writing side of things in his feature debut, casting himself as a hookup-happy New Yorker writer, Ben, whose chief personality trait is bursting into monologue about The State of Things™ without stopping to think about the role he plays in perpetuating them from afar. The themes of “Vengeance” couldn’t be clearer if you hung them on a longhorn parading in front of the Alamo; what Novak has attempted to do, then, is write away inevitable criticisms (namely that his movie’s ideas are perhaps more interesting than the movie itself) by essentially writing himself into this fish-out-of-water story.
Novak, a small-screen veteran whose big-screen credits to this point amount to bit appearances in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” might be onto something in “Vengeance” about outsider impressions of Texas, from Alamo legend right down to cowboy hat-wearing preachers. And if his own perspective limits the potency of the ideas he cooks up – ideas ranging from cultural divides to the priorities of American media to the allure of storytelling itself – it also underscores the value of recognizing those limitations instead of exploiting them in order to create a hit podcast, as Ben sets out to do in this movie that’s not quite what it seems at first glance, but also not quite the exacting diagnosis of a fractured country that it wants to be.
But back to that murder mystery, which “Vengeance” uses as a grim setup before all but shrugging it off. The victim is Abilene, a once-upon-a-one-night-stand whose funeral Ben is roped into attending by an overenthusiastic family after she was found dead of an apparent overdose. Brother Ty (a perfectly cast Boyd Holbrook) is suspicious that someone’s to blame. Ben, convinced those suspicions are mere delusions, goes along with it—giving himself over to the embrace of Abilene’s hospitable family while feigning interest in them for a podcast project about the stories rural Texans tell themselves to get by.
“I don’t want to be just a writer; I want to be a voice,” Ben says early on, and I’m sure Novak has similar aspirations. Much of “Vengeance” sees Ben attempting to reconcile the idea of Texas with the spirit of Texas via interactions with the townsfolk, though Novak the writer is riding a lot on these scenes when Novak the director struggles to give them much cinematic distinction. The cast helps him make up ground; Holbrook is infectious as a cowboy with a heart of gold, Isabella Amara and Dove Cameron sell the few punchlines they’re given, and Eli Bickel is disarmingly sweet as Abilene’s younger brother who occasionally just needs Ben’s help with unjamming his handgun (alas, “Vengeance” is largely content with merely introducing the stickiest political areas and leaving it at that, if they're introduced at all).
Most memorable, however, is Ashton Kutcher’s brief and believable turn as a local music producer with the silver-tongued drawl of a prophet. Novak slows down the pace of the film dramatically for a teaching moment between Kutcher and a young singer, emphasizing something mysterious and elegant about the figure while Ben realizes his own stereotypes have met their match.
Otherwise, most of “Vengeance’s” runtime sees it skirting the edges of tonal canyons, opting for wit over grit and never forgoing an opportunity to paint a broad Texas connection, as well as the occasional insider detail about the origins of Six Flags and the rivalry between UT and Texas Tech that should amuse Lone Star State audiences. (Yes, one of the most dramatic pivots takes place in a Whataburger. Obviously.) You can’t say Novak didn’t do his homework, and that goes a long way towards supplying him with some goodwill when Ben’s increasingly icky-feeling pursuit comes to a head with the suggestion that small-town Texas exists in his mind only to be seen by big-city folks (or learned about through their AirPods while taking the Subway several states away). Can he really hope to find the soul of modern America amid this tight-knit family’s grief? Does he really expect his audience not to be critical of the way he’s role-played his way through caring about the death of a girl he couldn’t recall at movie’s start?
“Vengeance” ultimately doesn’t provide clarity to these questions so much as it reveals them for the red herrings that they are. A bolder version of this movie might have more sharply interrogated its own reason for being, its enthusiasm for trafficking in Lone Star State specificity without taking stock of its own long, storied, complicated relationship with cinema. The movie was certainly angling to be embraced in that lineage, instead of merely a cheap collection of comedic bits set to whistling winds and rustling tumbleweeds.
It’s hard to deny Novak’s ambitions. It’s also hard to deny “Vengeance” comes across like an abridged version of itself, Novak’s script happily eschewing supposed truths his images struggle to convey. A film with ideas like these certainly could have only been set in Texas, where the only thing more vast than its camera-ready horizons is the potential for mythmaking so deep that stories set in those vistas threaten to overlook the people striding through them—a flaw that “Vengeance,” tellingly and self-affirmingly, isn’t totally able to avoid.
"Vengeance" is rated R for language and brief violence. It's now screening in theaters. Runtime: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Starring: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Lio Tipton
Written and directed by B.J. Novak
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