Once, on a summer roadtrip to Florida, two friends and I made a stop for the night at my then-fiancé’s house in deep central Georgia. Almost as soon as we left the highway, we found ourselves on dirt roads and passing a barn boldly graffitied with “The South will Rise Again.” Upon arriving at the house, one of my friends – all of us northeastern suburbanites, it should be noted – promptly walked over to the wall and picked up one of the many mounted rifles. My fiancé’s family moved as one to stop him because, of course, those guns are kept loaded and ready in case they are required. Shaken but wanting to immerse ourselves in the local culture, we took a nighttime joyride through the town with no stoplights, passing the only four-way intersection and the convenience store/pizza shop to try and get a close look at the home of the mystical Honey Boo Boo. When we got back on the road the next morning, we marveled at the strange mirror dimension we had just experienced.
As this story and many others I could tell suggest, I had strong personal connections to B.J. Novak’s directorial debut, Vengeance. It takes place in a Texas town with a familiar atmosphere and features a protagonist possessing something like my own naiveté. Ben (Novak), a writer and aspiring podcaster from Brooklyn, is called down to small-town Texas to attend the funeral of Abilene Shaw, a woman he had “hooked up with a few times.” When he learns that Abilene’s family was under the impression that he was her serious boyfriend and further, that they believe her to have been murdered, he uses the fish-out-of-water scenario to create thetrue-crime podcast featuring the podcast-worthy story he has been waiting for: the great social commentary of America.
The growing mystique around Abilene’s death provides ample opportunity for Ben’s newly formed relationship with the Shaw family to evolve and for him to discover that he may not be so separate from the disjointed nation he thinks he understands. Vengeance is an intelligent and well-acted dark comedy of the contention between back-country intuition and city-slicker intellectualism.
Vengeance is a series of contrasts and comparisons. Ben’s life in NYC is explained thoroughly in his opening conversation with his friend John (Novak's real-life friend John Mayer) as being one of extreme casual dating. Soon after he arrives in Texas for the funeral, Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) declares his intention to find and murder Abilene’s supposed killer – under the well-placed mise en scène of a fully stocked gun rack.
The theme of casual violence runs parallel to Ben’s examination of his own dating practices. In one scene, John’s monologue about the women he dates is nearly repeated by Abilene’s sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), except swapping women for guns. Ben’s connection with the town’s high-minded record producer, Quentin (Ashton Kutcher), links Ben back to his goal of podcast production. Quentin and Eloise (Issa Rae), the producer Ben is working with in NYC, act as embodiments of Ben’s two competing impulses; Quentin inspires Ben to find and “translate” the spirit of Texas, and Eloise encourages Ben to explore within himself. The true direction of the podcast and the success of the movie depends on Ben accomplishing both.
Critics of Vengeance may say that it paints with a broad brush. They may point to caricature or deny the existence of real-life counterparts to the movie’s characters. Some will complain about the use of Shakespearean self-awareness monologues. In other movies, monologues can be inappropriately placed and act as a distraction from a lack of a story to tell. This is not the case with Vengeance as monologues given to Novak, Kutcher, and J. Smith-Cameron (Abilene’s mother Sharon) especially serve the story and add richness to the characters. I find the characters recognizable and possessing the somewhat exaggerated quality that you might find in other beloved creations from Novak’s time as a writer, actor, and producer on The Office. Hyperbole is a trademark of any good comedy.
The jokes and southern cultural references abound and I find myself connecting to each one – I, too, have had to learn the hard way the difference between University of Georgia and Georgia Tech football teams at a family Thanksgiving. I have been uncomfortable as “the real story” of the Civil War was explained to me. I have heard the same blind loyalty to establishments like Whataburger and, since my tastes are used to exploring options, I have had the same difficulty understanding it. I have also been shocked to discover how many similarities exist between my own culture and this culture I feel that I understand so little. Reality is present throughout Vengeance, even in the jokes.
In addition to being a comedy, Vengeance confirms from its opening shot that it is also a mystery thriller. A twisty who-dunnit is an integral part of any detective story. Vengeance expands this concept beyond “who killed Abilene” to ask who the real villains are in rural America and, by the movie’s use of parallel, in society as a whole. Who is responsible for cultivating and maintaining a culture of fear and distrust? Is it the contentious Shaw family? Is it privileged carpetbagger Ben himself for exploiting their pain? Is it the town’s drug dealers or the backhanded system for allowing the opioid crisis? Is the problem that people are ignorant, or are they passionate emotional beings with no creative outlet? Is Ben better off for having lived in liberal urbana? These are the conversations that Novak wants to have with his audience. In real life and in Vengeance, there is nuance in the answers.
In the who-dunnit concept, the ugly truth comes out at the end after it has been in front of you the whole time. This is one of its most important links to reality, as the societal enemy is often disguised in plain sight and, once realized, is overtly evil. I saw three movies last week – Nope, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and Vengeance. All of them work within and transcend their genres (sci-fi horror, family mockumentary, and dark comedy) to tell stories featuring irreverent exploitation. I highly recommend seeing all three of these movies in a theater. Each will sit with me for a long time, encompassing different pieces of a crucial conversation, and I’ll be better for it. Nope and Marcel will likely receive recognition at the next Academy Awards.Vengeance, while not possessing the innovative effects present in the others, still deserves to be remembered. It’s a movie about the dispassionate exploitation of other human beings.
I’m rather new to the BFBs and see myself as an aspiring writer, not there yet. I hail from the northeast and I have extensive experience living in and interacting with the American south. I overthink every decision I make and generally care far more to learn about theories than I do about personalities (like with this sentence, I went back to add the word “generally”). Like Ben, I’m trying to find my voice and I think I understand much of the chaotic world around me. And, like Ben, my ego needs to be reminded of how much I have to learn. As Quentin advises Ben, "Every story we tell is ultimately about a person" – and Vengeance appears to be about me.