B.J. Novak’s directorial debut is the perfect flipside to Jordan Peele’s Nope, just at the right time.
The true genius of Vengeance is never what it says. The Office alum B.J. Novak’s directorial debut sure does a lot of talking, often whip-smart demolitions into the perceived and actual cultural divides that exist between red and blue America. It’s never that surprising to learn we’re not all that different, though the vicious cycle continues to churn and teach us the exact same lessons we seem to learn, then conveniently forget, about our neighbors.
Though, that’s only the first layer of the cake that Novak has baked with Vengeance, a film that seeks to not only dismantle the kind of stereotyping that makes a New York podcaster assume Texan ignorance will fuel his half-baked political theorizing, and makes Texan cowboys gawk at a guy for not picking the right state football college team. No, Novak’s far, far too thoughtful to not dig into much more about the world we live in, into the culture that exploits pain for personal gain, that creates simulacra to support not only our own worldviews, but our own realities for entertainment and self-fulfillment. Novak’s firecracker of a debut posits that, indeed, anyone can be susceptible to believing their own bullshit, and that the one unifying force that keeps holding the world together continues to be the unspoken truths that even the most delusional can’t avoid but to embrace.
Novak doubles as the film’s lead, a pompous, womanizing tool who probably has the phrase “storyteller” in his blue-checked Twitter biography. He’s the representation of liberal narcissism, the kind of not-so-creative creative that has no problem flying down to Texas to pretend to be a woman’s boyfriend, subsequently investigate that woman’s death and dupe her grieving family in the process to craft a true crime podcast that overlaps with his overwrought “no, this is America” thesis statement. Rather than play too heavily into the fish-out-of-water comedy and tie a neat “we’re different, but we’re also the same” bow on such a cringey plot setup, Novak shifts various ideas together for a scathing diatribe about our constantly shifting new media landscape. Novak’s film isn’t about America as much as it is distinctly American.
It’s a film about the freedoms we all have to pursue attention and success, no matter who we hurt and how much we cheapen those around us to be currencies to fund our self-fulfilling prophecies. The fascinating parallel this plays against Jordan Peele’s spectacular sci-fi horror extravaganza Nope can’t be missed. The same studio has released a flipped cinematic coin about spectacle within a week of each other. Peele’s film dealt with the macro, the car crashes we pull over for just to watch the chaos, while Novak’s deals with the micro, the abandoned houses we barge into like conquistadors, expecting to claim whatever’s there for our profit and entertainment. We can entertain others with cheapened tragedy, that’s for sure, but we can also entertain our own egos with improper filters over our intellectual and societal rivals to make our own echo chambers just a little bit comfier. Just because you think you’re the good guy in your story doesn’t mean that’s the case; just because you think you have the moral high ground doesn’t mean you’re not also standing on someone’s neck. We all breathe the same air; you’re not producing oxygen by cutting off someone’s trachea. You’re just self-righteous.
The more that Novak’s twee podcaster digs into Abilene’s death, and goes back-and-forth with his shrewder podcast producer (Issa Rae), the more the table begins to set itself for humble pie. Our protagonist gets spanked time after time by realization, with different Texans doling out slice after slice for Novak to chew on. Though, while Novak learns to appreciate the people and cultures around him more, it all still plays so suffocatingly, like the story in Novak’s character’s head now centers on a New Yorker’s journey of growth and self-discovery rather than the continually disturbing optic of a man lying to a dead woman’s family to make it big with a podcast that might be named “Dead White Girl.” So, sure, there’s probably a reason a streamer like Netflix that shovels true crime shit onto its platform weekly might not hop on what Novak’s got here. The film feels right on target with its critiques about how the true crime gold rush in media storytelling has come at the stark expense of the victims and the quickening of our collective desensitizing to looking at those involved in these tragedies as “characters,” not actual people with hopes, dreams, addictions, faults and complexities.
Though, like the best noirs, Novak’s film centers itself, ultimately, on the unspoken balance between good and evil that aligns us all, no matter who we voted for, where we live, or how we take our Twinkies, deep fried or “grilled.” The film Vengeance seems to follow the most in form is Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, funny enough, both films centered on flawed truth-seekers who meander across untrusting cities, only to discover just as much about themselves as they do the mysteries they seek to solve. While Novak’s Ben is no Philip Marlowe, he’s still someone who will ultimately come across the truth, one way or the other. And, as noted feminist Gloria Steinem wisely once said, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
Novak’s got plenty going for him behind the camera, with his script easily one of the year’s sharpest. The performances he gets out of character actors like Boyd Holbrook and J. Smith-Cameron aren’t surprising given the nature of their careers, but it’s what Novak finds in Ashton Kutcher that’s so startling. Kutcher, the longtime sitcoms star-turned-entrepreneur, plays a seemingly mellow record producer who Novak’s Ben first guffaws at as some sort of grifting “starmaker,” but ends up being a seemingly sage-yet-uneasy voice in the wilderness. Kutcher, in whatever screen time he’s given, finds something profound in such an aloof character, with Novak pinning the film’s heaviest thematic realizations right on the former sitcom star’s cowboy hat. It’s a performance that’s so interesting, you can’t help but wonder if Kutcher has more of this in him.
In the end, Vengeance is a balm for those of us who yearn for movies that not only make us think, but appreciate how cinema can pop when we think in spaces that take themselves seriously in genre execution. It’s about so much about the world we live in, about the stories we tell ourselves and others that fail miserably to account for what’s actually going on and who’s being affected. Though, for a film that never finds any struggle to say what’s on its mind, it’s at its most powerful when it knows it doesn’t have to say anything at all. Sometimes, it’s those moments of quiet realization that take a movie from being really good to absolutely great, and Vengeance makes the leap when it seeks that silent truth that, sure, might be a bitter pill to swallow, but ultimately heals far, far more than any words could ever hope to do. Sometimes, when we just shut up and face reality, we find exactly what we’re looking for, and we actually find our place in the grander story that seems to consistently elude those who try to tell it for the wrong reasons.