There is no greater gift than a film that completely catches you by surprise, where you eagerly reach for the phone as the credits roll, immediately sending out the “you must watch this!” text. Focus Features’ newest production Vengeance is that movie. As a reviewer, it’s important to try and have some insight into what you are about to watch, but in a rare case such as this, I was caught off guard and went in blind. That is definitely the way to approach this master class of a black comedy, so the following will be a spoiler-free review. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of insight to sway the minds of those unprepared to take a chance on this one. As we find out from our protagonist Ben: “This isn’t just a story about vengeance. It’s a story about the need for vengeance. The meaning of vengeance”. Now hold onto those Cowboy Hats and loaded pistols, we are taking a trek into the heart of Texas and toeing the line of truth and conspiracy.
Struggling New Yorker writer, New Yorker resident, and attempted podcast host Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak), finds himself in the search for a purpose and the perfect story, which may be the same thing. Going through a list of contacts that reads off like the phone is owned by your typical douchebag, Ben finds himself a mate for the evening and is awoken by a call that changes everything. A voice on the other end informs Ben that his girlfriend Abby is dead in Texas, and they believe she’s been murdered. The only issue is Ben has no idea who Abby is, or why they assume he is her boyfriend. Turns out Abby’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) is insistent on Ben flying out for the funeral, and all Ben’s mind could wrap around is the beginning of the ideal story for his podcast. Upon landing in Texas and attending Abby’s funeral, Ben starts to connect with Abby’s mother, sisters, brothers, and grandma, learning how family is the heart of Texas. The story begins to unfold quicker than Ben can record, and all of his preconceived notions of the state and its people are laid by the wayside as he realizes he needs to talk less and listen more. Just when you think you have the story figured it, you don’t, and the enigmatic cast, from Abby’s record producer Quentin (Ashton Kutcher) to Abby’s youngest sister Jasmine (Dove Cameron) will leave you entertained to the last shot.
At the heart of this story is the notion of truth. Sometimes, we are so scared to embrace this truth that we create an alternative narrative that is just easier for us to handle. Unfortunately, this ‘new’ verity begins to snowball into something worse and becomes an embraced idea that is quickly consumed by those unfortunate enough to accept it. First-time director B.J. Novak has beautifully played with this construct that has been eating away at this country for the past 6 years. He creates a film where its characters try so hard not to take something at face value, even when the facts are staring at them right in the face, that they find themselves in the very predicament they are trying to avoid. The nuance is there, and Novak, who also wrote the film, toyed with every line of dialogue to ensure that you were not missing what he was trying to show you. This film will be divisive to some who are unable to get past certain points, but trust me when I say the end is well worth the buildup.
It’s also something to be said about his lament of the current state of podcasts, as the aptly titled one his character was creating about Abby was called “Dead White Girl” as to listeners, that is the sum of her value. We treat the lives we are about as just another value of entertainment rather than a celebration of the person whose life ended to bring us the story. At times it seemed Novak had a lot to say without trying too hard and hammering it over the heads of the viewers, a trap some filmmakers have fallen into. Rather, he lets the audience realize for themselves that we are fed these stories of people across the country, painted in one simple stroke, instead of the vibrant individuals that call these places home. Novak seemed right at home filming in the heart of Texas, a state that I myself maligned due to the voices of the inept that run it, but took careful time in showing us what preconceived notions have been tearing us all apart.
This film did something for me that few have done recently; it left me surprised and enlightened. Did I think I would enjoy something this much from my least favorite character in The Office? No. Am I glad I did not allow myself to stick with this pre-judgment and instead embrace the idea of open-mindedness? Yes. To those still wondering if it’s worth their time, here is the point you need. Focus Features releases Vengeance in theaters on Friday, July 29th, and your ass better be firmly planted in a seat.