“Vengeance” is a cleverly designed and intriguing look at certain divisions in the country. But it is completely wrapped up in a ‘fish-out-of-water’ tale in which an elite guy from New York City spends a considerable amount of time with a West Texas family. At first his reaction is disbelief, amazement, and some ridicule. But after a while, he begins to see the ‘Blue State’ principles that he has learned might be softened by the ‘Red State’ values that he finds can also ring true.
Ben Manalowitz (played by B. J. Novak) is a typical East Coast guy living in NYC. He has attended the best Ivy League schools, writes ponderous articles for New Yorker magazine, and does a podcast. He wants to break out to a higher level for his podcast work, and he has teamed up with Eloise (played by Issa Rae). She manages his blogging and podcasting to get him wider exposure.
Ben gets hooked up with many women over the course of each month. None have made him think that it is anywhere near time to settle down. But there was one woman, named Abby – who came from West Texas. He thought she was fine, and a good singer. She wanted to hit it big in the Big Apple. He did not know that Abby was telling her family back at home that she and Ben were very serious.
Ben gets a call late at night. Abby has been gone and moved back to her family for a few months now. But this call is from her brother, Ty Shaw (played by Boyd Holbrook). Abby was found dead, and the family expects Ben to be at the funeral. After all, Abby was Ben’s steady girlfriend. Ben has no chance to say no, and soon he heads out to a very small town in the dry, dusty plains of Texas.
Ben spends time in the single stop-light town, and meets the family. Abby, whose full name was Abilene Shaw (played by Lio Tipton) had some sisters, along her older brother Ty (and a much younger brother). Her other sisters are Paris (played by Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (played by Dove Cameron). Abby’s mother Sharon (played by J. Smith-Cameron) and her grandmother are all upset that Abby is gone. The police autopsy said it was an overdose, but her family says she wouldn’t take anything ‘stronger than an Advil’.
Ty Shaw is a little bit on the ‘conspiracy nut’ side, and he believes that Abby was murdered. Ben does not think that could have occurred, but Ty is adamant. Ben gets an idea, and passes it along to his producer, Eloise. What if Ben stays there in this podunk town, and investigates this as an actual mystery murder? His podcast would have many episodes of the wild and hokey sayings of the Shaw family. Along with all the other people he could meet and interview in a small-minded small town.
Ty brings Ben around to meet with Sancholo (played by Zach Villa). He is the local gang leader, and drug middle-man. Ty thinks he is the one who killed his sister. Ben talks with Sancholo, with his recording device left outside in the safe hands of the henchmen. But Ben believes that Sancholo had a long-term crush on Abby, because she was the only one to help him overcome a reading problem in school. Besides, he says, Abby wouldn’t take anything ‘stronger than an Advil’.
Ben goes to meet up with a local record producer and studio owner. His name is Quinten Sellers (played by Ashton Kutcher). He is man with deep philosophy roots, and he can help people to discover their own unique ‘voice’. That was why he attempted to help out Abby, and suggested that she try out her talents in New York.
He has a full recording studio in a barn in this dinky West Texas town. Ben asks him, how can you do this and stay in business? Quinten wants to go the extra mile with everyone, and help them find their voice. Don’t worry; he will get by with all the business that he conducts in the town.
Ben talks with Abby’s family as a group. He wants to get a good grasp on what things they find important in life. What things are working out for them, and which things are difficult. The family sees that for all the things Ben thinks he knows, he still has gaps in his understanding of Texas.
What is so important about “The Alamo”? What is the meaning behind the “Six Flags”, as in ‘Six Flags Over Texas”? Where is the best place for food? No question about that answer — Whataburger. Just because –“It’s always there!”
Ben talks to the local Police, and also the Sheriff’s department, and the State Troopers, and the Border Patrol guys. It seems that the place where Abby dies was a virtual ‘no-man’s land’ in terms of Law Enforcement. None of them would claim that area, regardless if there were ten murders a day. Being close to the Mexico border and having local gangs in town (hello again, Sancholo!) means that the Cartel could be just around the corner.
Eloise calls to find out what is up with Ben. He has not contacted her for a while, or sent in anything new for the podcast. Ben explains that things might not be as clear-cut as he first thought. Maybe there is some type of dark undercurrent in this small Texas town.
Maybe Abby happened to see something that she was not supposed to see. Maybe there are greater forces at work, and it might even involve the local authorities or other local people involved in the sale of illegal drugs. Also, did you know that a ‘Frito Chili Pie’ is a thing, and it is delicious?
“Vengeance” is a first-time effort of writer and director B. J. Novak. He is known more for his portrayal of ‘Ryan’ in “The Office”. But now Novak has used the skills gained in television and comedy to create a cleverly absurd mystery crime movie. The initial idea is to bring someone who is a stereotypical East-Coast, wine-and-cheese, podcast-creating, long-form-writing snob.
Then this guy gets thrown into a West-Texas-barren-plains family of ‘God-n-Guns’ and ‘Love-It-Or-Leave-It’ red-blooded American yokels. Novak gently pokes fun at both sides, ready to raise red flags and social concerns with nary a trigger warning. The way each side is portrayed is with all warts exposed. And that makes it hilarious. Novak writes with a witty style similar to Aaron Sorkin.
“Vengence” may be a dish best served cold, but when is it is fresh and hot, like in this movie – it also tastes really good!
Written and Directed by: B. J. Novak
Starring: B. J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher
Cinematography: Lyn Moncrief
Edited by: Andy Canny, Hilda Rasula, Plummy Tucker
Music by: Finneas O’Connell
Distributed by: Focus Features
Release date: July 29 2022
Length: 107 minutes
MPAA rating: R for language and brief violence
Genre: Mystery, Drama