A writer from New York City attempts to solve the murder of a girl he hooked up with and travels down south to investigate the circumstances of her death and discover what happened to her.
B. J. Novak, who will be best known to most as Ryan from the US version of ‘The Office’, makes his directorial debut with ‘Vengeance’, an intriguing black comedy that centres on a self-centred writer who finds himself caught up in a murder mystery. The writer, Ben Manalowitz, is played by Novak himself (who also writes as well as directing and acting), and we’re introduced to him as a single man who spends his time hooking up with a series of random girls in New York City. One night he receives a phone call from a random guy (Boyd Holbrook), who informs him that his sister and Ben’s ‘girlfriend’ Abby has died of an apparent drug overdose, inviting him to the funeral in Texas. Intrigued by this call about someone he’d just hooked up with, Ben heads off to Texas to find out more, with his self-serving nature spotting a potential opportunity to create a new podcast series.
‘Vengeance’ covers a lot of ground in its runtime and spans several genres, from murder mystery to a satirisation of modern social media obsessed culture, and the bizarre thing is it mostly works. Novak plays Ben as purposely unlikeable – after all, this is a man willing to manipulate a grieving family for ‘content’ by going along with their misinterpretation of his relationship with their daughter and sister, but he does genuinely want to find out what happened to Abby, even if it is for the wrong reasons. It portrays the contrast in lifestyles and culture between New York and Texas well, showing that Ben’s arrogance and superiority is often misplaced, and there are some genuinely sweet moments as he bonds with the family.
As the lead, Novak is solid without being anything special, but I did like some of the supporting roles, in particular Ashton Kutcher as a local record producer who has also came to Texas as an outsider like Ben, and Issa Rae as Ben’s upbeat podcast producing partner. The murder mystery element forms the backdrop to the themes that Novak wishes to explore, and I felt it played out in a compelling way, with enough twists and surprises to keep the audience on their toes. I’m not sure it is quite as sharp as Novak intends in skewering the type of individuals who prey on vulnerable and grieving families to create ‘art’, but it certainly captures the modern fascination with trying to capture every experience and turn it into something that can be ‘consumed’ (I say this as someone who also records a podcast!).
‘Vengeance’ is a solid directorial debut from B. J. Novak with some smart observations on modern society, packaged up in a movie that touches on many different themes and genres, and for those looking for something slightly different and a bit more original than your standard thrillers, I’d recommend checking it out.
Directed By: B. J. Novak
Starring: B. J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Lio Tipton, Isabella Amara, J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron Eli Abrams Bickel and John Mayer