“Vengeance” is a film that’s refreshing simply because its story is original and different. There’s a lot to like about writer B.J. Novak‘s directorial debut, but there’s also something quite off-putting about the tone. This is obviously a very personal project, as you can tell that Novak has left his mark and has made the movie he wanted to make. This result is a film that is sarcastic, irascible, and pompous, and it’s not nearly as good as the auteur thinks it is. In other words, it fits his persona to a T.
Ben (Novak) is a writer in New York City. He lives his life with a series of one-night-stands and Tinder hookups. One night, he gets a call from a mysterious man named Ty (Boyd Holbrook), informing him that his sister (and Ben’s supposed girlfriend) has been murdered. Ben has no idea who this woman was, but intrigued, he hops on a plane to rural Texas to attend her funeral. While there, he learns that before her death, the young woman led everyone to believe that they were a serious couple. After bonding with her family, Ben decides to stick around and investigate the circumstances of her death for a podcast.
It’s a solid story for a black comedy, but the script isn’t as clever as it tries to be. The writing is unpleasant, especially considering the abundance of snarky, smug humor that screams “I’m smarter than you.” The constant “let’s make fun of the hicks” gags are tacky and dated, but thankfully there are some inspired, intelligent one-liners and flashes of smart humor, too.
The film starts out as a comedy, then transforms into a crime drama and morality tale. The story is simple and predictable, but Novak gets distracted from the narrative and throws in a stockpile of clichés as filler. He drops hints at more serious themes, but the film doesn’t dive as deep as it could and instead feels more like a means to an end. The story dishes out a taste of some very dark places with a touch of humor and a bit of insight, though, and is more compelling than disastrous.
The biggest elephant in the room is the egotistical decision of Novak to cast himself as Ben. He’s an unappealing leading man who isn’t strong enough to carry the part, and it’s a pity he felt the need to put himself in his film. It probably (definitely) would’ve worked far better with someone else stepping into the role. He’s not the right choice here. What I found most surprising about the cast is the unexpectedly strong turn from Ashton Kutcher as a small town music producer. Not only is his performance stirring, but Kutcher is given the almost all of the best lines from the script.
The ending is incredibly unsatisfying and eventually predictable, but “Vengeance” is interesting enough to recommend. The film has a terrific premise that’s mostly well-executed, even if suffers with a general smugness overall.