Vengeance is a story of expectations and response. Ben (B.J. Novak) lives a life of transient relationships as he navigates the dating scene in New York City. Out of the blue, he’s informed that Abby—one of the women he was casually seeing—has died, via a call from her distressed brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook). Ty implores Ben to attend Abby’s funeral in rural Texas, a locale with a very different personality than he is accustomed. Upon his arrival, Ben learns that the family is under the impression that he and Abby were much more serious than they were in reality, a myth that Ty uses to encourage to Ben extend his visit. Furthermore, Ty is convinced that Abby’s death was actually a murder and the two of them stop should stop at nothing to uncover the killer and exact revenge.
What works in Vengeance is dark comedy and poignant writing. Novak, who in addition to starring also directed and wrote the feature, crafts together a rather complex and insightful narrative in the middle of the mystery. Much like his embodiment of the central character, Novak deftly explores preconceived notions about society, and the handling of situations beyond understanding or control. These messages go down easy because of its humorous packaging—to call this a “fish out of water” tale would be reductive, but appropriate at the core. There’s a level of appreciation and respect Novak has for the characters that keeps the dialogue incredibly sharp and engaging, even if they are bordering on caricatures. Vengeance relies on relatability and entertainment to command attention, and then uses the platform to present some rather enlightened ideas on the current cultural environment in a connected digital age.
The examination and exploration of regional ways of life in Vengeance may feel exploitative and insensitive to some audience members. Novak’s intentionality is to showcase how commonality is meant to connect and bond individuals from dissimilar backgrounds, but that endpoint is only earned after a bit of satirical poking. Furthermore, Vengeance offers up a very particular brand of comedy that takes some dark turns. In general, Novak relishes luring watchers into a false sense of security, only to pull out the rug in some jarring (albeit effective) ways.
Vengeance is a thought-provoking exposé of a film. With fascinating blend of heart, humor, and primal instinct, the final product may not be for everyone but will resonate deeply with its intended audience.
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