'Vengeance' review: B.J. Novak's directorial debut spins an intiguing, undercooked mystery
Courtesy of Focus Features
An assured and confident debut from “that guy from ‘The Office,’” B.J. Novak’s intriguing, if slightly misguided “Vengeance” takes some unexpected and audacious turns before arriving at a conclusion that doesn’t add up to the sums of its parts. There are worst director and writer debuts, and “Vengeance” attempts an original approach to the tried and tested “fish out of water” formula and comes stacked with a sizable ensemble including Ashton Kutcher (in one of his best performances), Issa Rae, Boyd Holbrook, and J. Smith Cameron. Even when plausibility might get thrown out to pasture, Novak keeps a hand on the impulses and rousing stability of the characters he’s written, offering them some form of closure. Good or bad.
But give Novak credit for steering “Vengeance” into several different genres without feeling overwhelming as the film is equal parts revenge thriller, social satire, and drama. Novak steps into the lead role of Ben, a successful writer for the New Yorker eyeing methods of reinventing himself aside from the occasional rotation of hook-ups he finds scouring trashy dating apps. He’s got ambition to become a podcaster, but doesn’t know where to start. That is until he receives a mysterious phone call in the middle of night from the brother (Holbrook) of a women whom he had sexual relations with saying his “girlfriend” has died of a drug overdose.
Confused at the connection (because he doesn’t have a girlfriend), Ben decides to hop a plane, landing directly into a staunchly conservative, middle-of-nowhere Texas suburb to find answers. Some in the community suspect foul play and Ben uses the on-going investigation as a catalyst for his forthcoming podcast. The findings make for a compelling show and his producer (a headstrong Issa Rae) who works at an NPR stand-in is thrilled with the results, but implores him to dig deeper and poke holes.
Along the way Ben encounters an array of interesting characters that greatly contrast the lifestyle he’s accustomed to in the big city. It makes for some hilarious moments, especially when he’s interviewing the main family and grandma begins taking stock (rather frankly) of the artillery they have because in Texas: “We don’t call 911.” The culture shock phase of Ben’s journey sticks out because there’s authenticity in the presentation and stops shorts of being overtly political (Republicans are moviegoers too) though it could have pushed the needle a shade more.
Ashton Kutcher, who only has a few scenes, absolutely hammers it up as a self-prophesying record producer invested in the outcome of Ben’s findings, which eventually craters into a half-baked metaphor on the drug epidemic and other cliched talking points. The finale, despite being well written, also ends up being predictable, but Novak keeps the audience engaged with his stern eye on the different facets in this small Texas community and earnestly juggles the central mystery. “Vengeance” might end up being a summation of many different ideals about appropriation, law and order, and the wealthy elite, but the film demonstrates Novak’s keen sense of awareness, signaling major promise for whatever project he takes on next.
VENGEANCE opens in theaters Friday, July 29th.