B.J. Novak delivers his feature directorial debut in Vengeance, which was one of the most pleasant surprises when I was cramming in 2022 releases at the end of the year. I never watched the US version of The Office or much of Novak’s other TV work, so I only really knew him from his turn in Inglourious Basterds as Pfc. Smithson Utivich. So my expectations of him were pretty non-existent, but it turns out that he is a very good writer/director and actor.
The film starts in New York City as journalist Ben Manalowitz (Novak) receives a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) that his “girlfriend,” Abby Shaw, has died of an overdose back home in Texas. In reality, their “relationship” was nothing more than a hook-up, but Ty is insistent that he comes out to Texas for the funeral. However, Ben doesn’t reveal that information to the grieving family. It’s all going to happen in the middle of nowhere in Texas, a.k.a. “real Texas,” and Ben finally finds where he is supposed to go to after he lists all the big cities of Texas. Naturally, being the liberal hipster he is, he starts with Austin and goes from there.
Abby’s brother Ty suspects foul play was involved, and soon enough Ben is making a true crime podcast about the case tat includes a kind of sociological examination of Texas, where America is at large, and the very real culture divide. Ty is insistent that Ben has to help him get to the “truth” and avenge his sister’s death. It ends up as a darkly comedic look at the South with a noirish angle, all held together by Ben being this fish out of water.
Luckily the film doesn’t fall into the “let’s laugh at the Southern hicks” schtick that you might expect from the directorial debut of a Harvard-educated Jewish New Yorker. It’s not without laughs at Texas and its culture, but maintains an air of respect and affection for all its quirks. It seems like Novak actually spent at least some time in Texas to get a feel for the place and its culture: there is some hilarious dialogue about the Texas-based burger chain Whataburger.
Novak has an almost Buster Keatonesque stone-face that suits the material. The writing is very tight, and the film is consistently funny for its 107 minutes, which about as far the length should be for this type of film. The supporting cast is excellent across the board: Boyd Holbrook is caving out an interesting career for himself, Ashton Kutcher—who I’ve never liked—is hilarious as an enigmatic music producer/guru type, and the rest of Shaw family are brilliantly cast.
If you want a slyly funny and thoughtful noir/black comedy, you could do a lot worse than Vengeance. Some have criticised the ending, but it worked for me and seemed believable, so hopefully it works for you. The cinematography from Lyn Moncrief is really unfussy, but the compositions are well-crafted, which elevates the low-budget nature of the film. I normally hate films about podcasters, despite being a huge Kevin Smith fan: the constant use of podcaster characters as stand-ins for him is starting to grate. Vengeance never puts it in the forefront, but just makes it a character quirk.
The disc from Mediumrare contains no extras of any kind, not even a trailer! Commentary from B.J. Novak or an interview would have been welcome.