BJ Novak will always be best known as Ryan Howard in the American version of The Office. A Smart character actor who can count likes of Inglorious Basterds, Saving Mr Banks and The Founder. Now he can add directorial feature in the shape of Vengeance to his ever increasing CV .
The film had a UK cinema release back in October with very little if no fanfare. Now the film’s home release has arrived and it deserves some spotlight. A nihilistic tale that wants to be many things and it is, a social satire that’s much as a thriller.
Director is also the writer and lead actor in Vengeance. He plays Ben Manalowitz, a New York based journalist-writer, looking for that ultimate story for his podcast. That opportunity comes in a late night phone call from the brother of a woman he was casually dating has died.
The call comes from her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook), who convinces Ben to travel to rural Texas to attend the funeral. Her family are convince Ben is also her long time boyfriend . After the he learns they want him to investigate the theory she was murdered. When lightbulbs and dollar signs start to appear Ben agrees to help and a new podcast starts to take shape.
When we first meet Ben, it’s at a Manhattan party chatting to his good friend John (John Mayer). They chat about women they have dated and slept with. This gives us our first impression of Ben, that he’s nothing more than a womaniser. Those women are just numbers or nicknames in his phone contacts and doesn’t want any commitment. The one woman who he can’t convince is his boss Eloise (Issa Rae). She can see right through him and any ideas seem to lack conviction…Apart from the idea that sees him in Texas.
Ben’s fling, Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) isn’t on the screen a lot . When we do, it’s in flashbacks, memories from her loved ones in pictures or on her mobile. We first hear her sing as the camera pans over a dark oilfield to her dead body. Ben is convinced it was an overdose not murder that ended Abilene’s life.
Vengeance is more than just a mystery thriller that tips it’s toe into noir. It’s also about America’s identity and how we perceive each other. The politics of the country Red State / Blue State or states that predominately voted Republic or Democrat. We all think we know each other, when really don’t. What we believe to be true is usually thanks to mythology or worse. Texas is a state beset with problems or it’s natives living to stereotypes. Just like many places, there heart is in the right place just how they express it. We all approach things in many different ways that some people might find anarchic. People are full of surprises, never judge on first impressions.
BJ Novak’s Ben never comes across as a truly likeable character. Pretentious who sees a ‘dead white girl’ , as ‘the holy grail of podcasts’. An opportunist who’ll hijack grief in the name of professional gain. Whilst we do want to hate everything about him we can’t seem even when he ridicules the Shaw family give him genuine Texan hospitality. The family do get their own back on him at a local rodeo showing him as a wuss.
Ashton Kutcher also stars as local music executive, he’s one of the cast highlights. Instead of the usual rom-com part, this time he plays a more dramatic role. He pushes Ben to listen to the world than talk to it.
For a debut feature Novak has created a film that has a lot to say. It’s darkly comedic, thought-provoking film, that reminds us how different we all are. Sometimes it’s hard to accept the truth, and Vengeance misses the step a little. What we do have is a smart, well executed film that you should check out.
Comedy, Mystery | USA, 2022 | 15 | Blu-ray, DVD | 16th January 2023 (UK) | Mediumrare Entertainment | Dir.BJ Novak | BJ Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Ashton Kutcher, Isaa Rae, J Smith-Cameron