It would be easy to say that B. J. Novak’s Vengeance is a Coen brother – esque film.
Novak’s directorial debut, in which he plays the film’s protagonist, Ben Manalowitz, a plucky journalist and podcaster, spends the first fifteen minutes of the film aimlessly agreeing with the people in his life at a party. 100%.
The script concerns itself with one of Ben’s hook-ups, Abilene Shaw, mysteriously dying in the desolate deserts of West Texas. Ben is enticed to capture the family’s grief and way of life when he is unexpectedly called out to her funeral by her brother, Ty, played by a hilarious Boyd Holbrook. Just as abruptly, Ben hops on a flight, and what ensues is a game of cat and mouse where there is no real cat and no real mouse.
He’s seeking something more significant than he is, where the emotional ramifications echo Not Okay (now streaming on Hulu). He wants a voice in a place where the shouts and pot shots run endlessly in all directions. That’s a part of Vengeance’s charm – the isolation; it not only allows our inner voices to echo with very little quarter. It also allows us to hear the noise as a great cacophony of sound for what it is with nothing to reverberate it.
The real strength of Vengeance is in its characters, where the film becomes a bit Coen-esque and a bit Curtis Hanson, namely L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. Each of the characters and their locations has a real story to tell as Ben tries desperately to piece together a story worthy of a podcast, with his editor in virtual tow.
Once the story settles in West Texas, the dark humor becomes more accurate, more tangible. Novak directs himself, and the story’s Yin-Yang effect adeptly, even with the character’s eventual self-realization, works toward a conclusion. What attracts us to Ben are his reactions from a world where he has everything (privilege again) to a world where he knows next to nothing and has to rely on his instincts (with a bit of help from Whataburger.)
Then there’s Ashton Kutcher in a mustache-twirling type role that any actor relishes. As Quinten Sellers, Kutcher shines. I remarked to a friend that the way Kutcher was shot and the lighting, it was as if he was channeling his inner Bill Paxton from Tombstone. I didn’t elaborate on that last part in the conversation, but his reaction was as if I’d spoken a cinematic sin in mentioning Paxton’s name. The point still stands – there was something ominous and deceptive about Kutcher’s performance that I appreciated. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief’s work here was outstanding, a credit to his horror work over the years.
Vengeance does feel a little overbaked in the editing department, though, and with its lean 107-minute run time, more from the film was sought. The characters and the actors who performed them were on point; some of the story elements probably needed to go through another pass, while others could have been more generous. Yet, the ominous feeling from the third act recovers the story.
I’m not entirely sure that Vengeance left me feeling vindicated or exposed, but the characters of West Texas will surely be with me for a long time. 100%.
Written & Directed by B. J. Novak
Starring B. J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher
R, 107 mins. Focus Features