B.J. Novak will be best known to many as Ryan in the American version of The Office, but he has many strings to his bow. As well as being an actor, comedian, TV writer, and children’s book author, he has now written and directed his first feature film. Vengeance is a black comedy thriller which follows New York-based journalist Ben (Novak, casting himself in the leading role), who flies to Texas for a funeral when his ‘girlfriend’ Abilene (Lio Tipton) dies of a suspected drug overdose. Her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) suspects foul play and asks for help to avenge her death, which gives Ben an idea for a new true crime podcast series.
An ambitious screenplay that uses its genre trappings as a concept canvas, the script lets Novak grind his axe about class, society, and politics, which is alluded to an early scene. It results in a very funny depiction of the red state/blue state divide, as he looks inward as the privileged East Coast arrogance of his protagonist. Putting the unsubtle subtext to one side, the murder mystery plot is entertaining in its own right, making use of its collection of colourful characters. The final couple of moments feel jarringly disjointed from the rest of the story which might divide some opinion, but the deliberate intent of the surprising last act is thought-provoking, nonetheless.
There’s a refreshing self-awareness in the narrative that comes through in Novak’s central performance. Holding up a mirror to Ben’s narcissism, he’s not always likeable but he’s always compelling. Boyd Holbrook does a great job in portraying the antithesis to the lead, revelling in the Southern stereotypes, and bringing a lot of the humour to the film. He’s joined by a fun supporting cast that make up Abilene’s close-knit clan, like the Langmores from Ozark but a little more wholesome. We have her dim-witted siblings, her eccentric grandmother, and Succession’s J. Smith-Cameron brilliantly playing the matriarch of the dysfunctional family. Ashton Kutcher also delivers the goods in his first film appearance in almost a decade, representing the middle-man to an extent, but with a disconcerting menace.
A sharp social satire that challenges our cultural perspectives, Vengeance marks an ambitious debut from B.J. Novak, working both as an engaging crime flick and an outlet for his abundance of ideas. Choosing to use cinema as the vehicle for his endless flow of creativity can’t be a bad thing and means there’s one less outspoken white guy starting a podcast.
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