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Film Review: ‘Vengeance’ is an Ingenious Debut from B.J. Novak

Focus Features
Focus Features

Wow. Nothing beats the feeling of being unexpectedly blown away by a film. Whenever I sit down to watch a movie in a screening room, movie theater, or on my laptop, I know the potential is there for something special, even if it’s rarely achieved. Then, something like Vengeance comes along and just wallops me. Especially considering how I’d heard almost exclusively good things about this flick, which I tragically missed at the Tribeca Film Festival, but nothing prepared me for how great it truly is. Not only is it a surprise delight, it’s one of the ten best movies of the year so far, without question. Actor turned filmmaker B.J. Novak announces himself as an exciting new voice behind the camera with this absolute gem.

Vengeance is a mix of comedy, mystery, and thriller, lending equal weight to all three elements. Moreover, the gradual emotionality and tragic element to the story is so naturally woven in, it truly sneaks up on you. As funny and satirical as the first act, and even first half is, it seamlessly gives way to a compelling detective tale of sorts, with genuine tension and emotions. Whether you see where it’s going or are stunned by the outcome, there are treasures buried here, just below the surface, but there for the finding.

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Radio host, podcaster, and writer Ben Manalowitz (Novak) lives a fairly metropolitan life in New York City. When we meet him, he and his friend John (John Mayer) are essentially rationalizing their own vapid hook up culture. The women in his phone barely have names, so much as signifiers so he can tell them apart. One night, while one such hook up is over, he gets a call from an unknown number. The man is upset and eventually identifies himself as Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), regretting to inform Ben that Ty’s sister and his girlfriend Abilene (Lio Tipton) is dead. Now, Ben barely remembers her as more than one of the many women in his phone, but he finds himself unable to turn down an insistent invitation to the funeral in small town Texas.

Quickly, Ben learns that Abilene told her family that they were dating, to the point that the Shaw family has become mildly obsessed with the big city writer. He means to let them down easy, but they charm him out of it. That, and their conviction, led by Ty, that her overdose death was actually a murder. That leads Ben to see the potential for an epic, Serial style podcast, which his editor Eloise (Issa Rae) loves and green lights. The Shaws and basically everyone in town are accommodating, including folks like entrepeneur Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), leading to some great material for Ben, as well as the culture shock of a sheltered New Yorker deep in the heart of Texas. The thing is, is he telling the story of a sad family, investigating a murder, or something else entirely?

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Everyone in the cast makes a nice little impression, no matter the size of their role. B.J. Novak really sells the evolution of his protagonist, leaning in to his mockable traits while also progressively upping his regret over how he treated this girl. It winds up being stirring stuff, helping to make Vengeance what it is. Boyd Holbrook has rarely been better, giving humor and pain to what could have been a stock character. The same goes for Ashton Kutcher, who elevates a role that easily might have otherwise been cliched. Lio Tipton makes the most of just a few key photos and videos, creating a more layered character than you’d expect, while John Mayer is just an amusing little cameo. Issa Rae has less to do than you’d ideally want, but effectively helps to move the plot forward at times. Supporting players here include Isabella Amara, Eli Bickel, Dove Cameron, and J. Smith Cameron as the Shaw family, each of whom has at least a small moment with which to shine.

Writer/director B.J. Novak outdoes his already strong performance, turning in some top-notch filmmaking. His direction is incredibly assured, layering clues without calling attention to them and knowing exactly when to lean into the comedy or drama of it all. The screenplay, however, is the true highlight of Vengeance, as it manages to leave a huge impact. Whether it’s skewering podcast culture, the divide in the country, or tugging at your heart, there isn’t a missed beat. I can’t wait to see what Novak does next.

Vengeance will almost certainly surprise you. I know it threw me for a loop, in the best way possible. This is not just a terrific filmmaking debut for Novak, it’s one of the best movies so far in 2022. Especially considering how I went in without any kind of expectations, that’s quite the statement. Make it your business to see this one, as the rewards as plentiful!

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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