The media sphere is often a tricky place to describe from the lens of either the consumer or the creator. Being both does help improve one’s clarity, especially while dissecting the mild differentials of a cultural divide. One not incited by persons, but more by geographical distance, climate, or location. It might not always carry the energy necessary to evolve into a drastic skirmish. But the tension is no less frothy when two opposing forces collide at each crucial point. For first-time feature writer/director BJ Novak (The Office), his bets are placed on how long it would take for any compassion or judgment to fall away in favor of impulsive desire and false reality. With his plot for Vengeance, he’s setting out to prove how modern media can paint a slanted, deceit-fueled portrait. Often for profit, other times for personal gain.
East Coast journalist Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is standing between two buckets, always chasing a story with his day job as a New Yorker contributor. His present work is not particularly fulfilling, however. He’s constantly searching for something more, something unique he could potentially sell to his podcast producer friend Eloise (Issa Rae). His core concept: the fractures of communication, how our lines of collecting information or entertainment have been pinched by substantial convenience. Conversations lack immediacy, television is never viewed all at once, and mere speaking has been replaced with words on a screen. Thus, removing the voice in this culture war. Novak senses that idea, his character eager to finally put it to spoken diction.
Fate casts Ben to an alternate direction when his big city womanizing catches up with him at three in the morning. Called up by random stranger Ty (Boyd Holdbrook), Ben receives word of the death of his sister, Abilene (Lio Tipton). A girl Ben had a brief history with, but that her whole family was convinced to be a far more meaningful relationship. Out of guilt, he flies to a small, rural West Texas town to attend the funeral. Ty believes in a hurry his sibling’s passing was not accidental. Not an overdose in an oil field late at night as local authorities will say, but a carefully planned murder. Ben decides to stay around the town, interacting with the family to gather clues he could piece together. And in turn, build a true crime series from the ground up, with Eloise chomping at the bit with each fresh nugget about the locale, and Abilene’s diverse backstory.
The very moment Ben’s creative mindset whirs and pops, that’s when Novak’s intuition reaches a high plateau. Peak craftiness, without falling into a typical comedy trap. His finger stays firmly on the trackpad, in shifting from mildly satirical to dark and visceral. Often at breakneck speed, illustrated at the start as Ben hobnobs with John Mayer at a riverside party. That contrast of elitism versus naivety best describes Novak’s fish-out-of-water demeanor, humbled if not cautious to shove Ben out of his comfort zone. Once both feet settle in the arid oil-drilling community Abilene had called home, Ben’s playfulness kicks in, going full detective, shaping his ex’s family into beacons of culture shock. And he’s the one being jolted, at a dull level.
As Ben traverses through his small-town setting, he considers everyone a person of interest, suspect or no. Holbrook’s Ty exudes lowbrow charm, the voice of reason against mother Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), little brother El Stupido (Elli Abrams Shaw), and sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron). They all welcome Ben in with most open arms, regardless of a social-political disconnect and beaming stereotypical pride. The whole “Everything’s bigger in Texas” ideal, which Ben flips on its head while continuing to gather interviews. Conversations with conflicting police groups, shrewd drug dealer Sancholo (Zach Villa) and record producer Quentin (Ashton Kutcher). The latter’s life philosophy and experience with Abilene in building her singing career test Ben’s wavering patience, pegging down both a killer and the heart of his story all at once.
Everything Novak keeps his eye on, often multiple ideas sharing the same frame, only further broadening his skill as a director. He’s had enough practice with television directing on a minimal basis, so he’s never in over his head with his myriad procedures. He keeps his cast much grounded, busy, and never lackadaisical with portraying the surface strains of red state culture. It gives Cameron her wittiest character to date, and Kutcher his most mature, his tightest grip on the cynical. They all bolster his own performance, helping him maintain a level composure, even while nail-bitingly nervous.
That flighty attitude does admittedly dull the sting of odd revelations in the latter half, abandoning Novak’s more sociological viewpoint in favor of a slightly stock finish line, with a fleeting Tarantino-like strain. That might not fit Novak’s developing brand just yet, heads left scratching over whether the story justifies its darker twists in conjunction with its more profound statement of truth amid a shrinking cross section of Americana.
Well bolstered in visual strengths by DP Lyn Moncrief (Unhuman), and in aural charm by composer Finneas O’Connell (Turning Red), Novak keeps his attention tight, deep, and beguiling. Even as he loses himself in the whole whodunit aspect, struggling to find his exit point without the need for added esoteric hearsay. Vengeance plays best to chart the waters of cultural defragmentation, itemizing every trait of a community, large or small as if they were bullet points, instead of attributes to be found in an actual location. Novak rigs his first significant step in filmmaking to leave the questions he proposes very open-ended. Despite not completely landing the Texan bullseye in the same place he took off from, I feel what he has to say next from a feature perspective will be loud, perplexing, and warmly inviting. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Vengeance opens in theaters July 29; rated R for language and brief violence; 107 minutes.