Vengeance Review

You can feel the gears trying desperately to turn, despite being firmly locked in place, in B.J. Novak’s exceptionally plain directorial debut. Vengeance follows pretentious New Yorker columnist Ben Manalowitz (Novak) on a reluctant journey to the deep south to solve (and podcast about) a young girl’s murder, but it fails to grasp at meaning despite having its characters verbalize dozens of different themes about the modern American divide. Granted, the result of this meandering is a stunningly — and in some ways, commendably — nihilistic conclusion, rendered with an intimacy the rest of the movie lacks. However, it’s too last-minute a turn, for a story that says nothing en route to suddenly deciding it had a profound mission statement all along.

When Vengeance opens, it feels like a movie with a lot on its mind. A montage, set to Toby Keith’s upbeat, casual “Red Solo Cups,” depicts a rural Texan oil field as the site of a young girl’s disappearance while the opening credits play. The stark tonal disconnect sets up both a wry comedic tone, and a sense of broad allegory — the red solo cup is, after all, a quintessential symbol of American culture across all lines of experience, something recognized the world over thanks to its prevalence in Hollywood — but the buck stops there.

When the casually womanizing Manalowitz gets a phone call about the death of a girl he used to sleep with — amateur musician Abilene (Lio Tipton), whose family believes they were still together, and deeply in love — he flies out to West Texas to attend her funeral, albeit with ulterior motives. Her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) doesn’t buy the official story that she overdosed. He believes she was murdered and he has a culprit in mind, so he seeks out retribution and drafts Manalowitz into his service. Manalowitz, in the guise of catching a phantom killer, seizes the opportunity to craft an audio narrative about the woes of heartland America, including the opioid crisis that seemingly killed Abilene, and the conspiratorial thinking that makes Ty believe otherwise.

It’s a filmic introspection of a clueless, obnoxious liberal, but it often feels like Manalowitz is its author rather than its target, despite the numerous times he underestimates Abilene’s family and their intelligence. It has exactly one joke up its sleeve — city man think country person dumb, but country person really smart! — but it never uses this repetition to bring Manalowitz (or the narrative) closer to a genuine understanding of his podcast subjects. Sometimes, it’s a fish out of water story, à la Borat. Other times, it skirts close to making Manalowitz reflect on his unkindness. But as a whole, it has little to no narrative drive, whether in the unfurling of its plot (i.e. Manalowitz pulling on various threads and uncovering details the police might have overlooked) or in its character saga, of a man who intrudes on a grieving family and finds unexpected acceptance.

The key problem here is that, despite the film’s insistence that Manalowitz and his upper-crust Manhattanite ilk fail to recognize the humanity of people across America’s political spectrum, Vengeance offers them little of the same. Ty, his mother (J. Smith Cameron), his grandmother (Louanne Stephens), his younger brother (Elli Abrams Bickel), and his sisters (Dove Cameron and Isabella Amara), are all afforded snappy comebacks to the snooty journalist and his presumptions, but what they aren’t afforded is a sense of perspective and experience. Apart from Granny Shaw — a role Stephens inhabits with a mischievous grace, as if someone had breathed real life into Meemaw from Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy — the family rarely behaves as if they’ve lived life, or experienced loss. So, there’s never a lasting sense that Manalowitz is the interloping emotional vampire the film frames him to be, as he forwards their recorded conversations to his podcast producer, Eloise (Issa Rae).

This lack of discernible outlook also extends to the film’s core premise: despite its political allusions, Vengeance has no actual politics of which to speak, or any characters beyond Manalowitz with even a hint of political coding in the narrative (even the basic cultural aesthetics generally associated with American politics are too complex for the film to grasp). It’s a story that, apart from certain specificities — like the prevalence of delectable Texan fast food chain Whataburger — could take place practically anywhere else, so even the sheltered white-rich-liberal obliviousness on display has nothing off which to really bounce.

Furthermore, Manalowitz’s chosen medium — the true crime and/or political podcast — is similarly an afterthought, despite the presence of a key supporting character as a parallel to him: Quinten Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a music producer who helped Abilene record a couple of tracks. Sellers is the closest thing the movie has to a real conception of depth, as someone with a purposeful, existential outlook on sound and voices, but with a subdued bitterness towards everything else. Kutcher finds intriguing balance in this conundrum, but Vengeance never seems to recognize the dots it could potentially connect, as a story of people who capture lives and impressions through acoustics, and as a tryst between someone who knew Abilene well, and cared for her soulful music, and someone using her death to his advantage.

To expect Vengeance to use sound to tell its story in a meaningful way (beyond a few fleeting glimpses at Manalowitz’s podcast) is a tall order, given that even its use of images rarely seems to extend beyond “merely functional.” While a single scene of Manalowitz and the Shaws hanging out at Whataburger has an almost documentarian approach — an intrusive verité lens peeking in on unexpected joy — little else in the film’s visual construction helps tell its story, whether through individual brush strokes focused on character, or by crafting an overarching fabric. It has no sense of time or place, despite geography and the contemporary breakdown of truth and trust in America being central to its premise. Even in its less serious moments, it has little care for rhythm, beyond holding far too long on Novak’s reaction shots, in which he expresses little beyond a two-dimensional indignation. Novak may hold his character’s feet to the fire, but he can’t resist warping the story around his own presence.

Vengeance often resembles Jon Stewart’s pompous, deeply misguided political comedy Irresistible in its sheer nothing-ness, despite superficial gestures towards insight and answers. The story does eventually gesture towards Manalowitz’s hollowness, when it finally reveals the dark heart lingering beneath its surface — a nihilism that might have genuinely rocked an audience to its core in a better movie — but it ends up being a mere flourish in the grand scheme of things, a last-minute attempt to embody some sense of drama or intensity stemming from the world around the characters. Sadly, it ends up being too little, too late.

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