The Movie Waffler New to VOD - VENGEANCE | The Movie Waffler


A New York writer travels to Texas to investigate the death of a young woman he once dated.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: BJ Novak

Starring: BJ Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Ashton Kutcher, Issa Rae, Dove Cameron, J Smith-Cameron

vengeance poster

Imagine if Cameron Crowe decided to remake Get Carter and you'll have some idea of what to expect from actor turned writer/director BJ Novak's feature debut Vengeance. The title might suggest the sort of straight to VOD fare that the likes of Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson have made their recent living from, but Novak's debut is no action movie. Rather it's a look at the current divisions in American society and whether such divisions are justified.

vengeance review

Novak casts himself in the lead role of Ben, a narcissistic New York based writer whose editor (Issa Rae) is trying to steer him into the world of podcasts. One night Ben is awoken by a phone call from Ty (Boyd Holbrook), a rural Texan whose sister Abilene (Lio Tipton) has died from an overdose. Ben had gone a couple of dates with Abilene before ghosting her, but Ty mistakenly believes that the two are a genuine couple and invites Ben to the funeral. Figuring it might make for a good story, Ben decides to head to rural Texas, where he is immediately embraced by Abilene's family.

After the funeral, Ty reveals his belief that Abilene was murdered by a Mexican drug dealer, and with the aid of Ben, plans to avenge his sister. Ben is taken aback, but figures if he can expose a cover-up it will make for one hell of a podcast debut. Moving in with Ty's family, Ben begins his investigation, warming to his hosts in the process. The more he learns about Abilene the more he becomes consumed with guilt, motivating him further to bring her killer to justice, if she was indeed murdered.

vengeance review

Novak wants his film to tell us that Americans have more in common than not, but I'm not sure he pulls it off. The movie criticises Ben for his clichéd views of rural America, but they're views that Novak the filmmaker also seems to hold. Ben and Abilene's family are deliberately written as broad stereotypes – the Jewish East Coast intellectual and the rednecks who enjoy football, rodeo and fast food – so from the off it's clear that they're not very alike. Ben learns to enjoy football, rodeo and fast food, but it's a little disingenuous to suggest that it's such cultural quirks that divide Americans. What really separates America's coasts from its centre are politics and religion, two subjects Novak shies away from. None of the issues that really divide Americans today – race, homosexuality, immigration etc – are broached, which makes Ben's embracing of his rural hosts a little hard to swallow. The closest we get to such topics are an awkward moment when a Confederate flag is unfurled at a rodeo and a throwaway comment about how Ben looks like an extra from Schindler's List. By portraying the film's only Mexican character as a drug dealer, Novak is guilty of some of the thinking he would likely criticise.

But if there's one area that unites Americans it's the belief in common decency and standing up for your loved ones. This is ultimately what draws Ben to joining Ty's quest for justice. In the figure of sleazy record producer/drug baron Quinten (Ashton Kutcher) we have a representation of Americans' real enemy, the sort of sociopathic capitalist who will happily ruin lives to fill his wallet. Kutcher is a revelation, playing the part with a raw menace I never would have thought him capable of. I don’t think it's a stretch to suggest Novak has mined a career best performance from the former Two and a Half Men star.

vengeance review

At times Novak's lack of directorial experience is telling, with some bits of info communicated in a sloppy manner and editing that suggests a lack of foresight, though as the film was shot under COVID conditions this may be unfair to Novak. As a writer however he does a better job of developing interesting characters. Even if they do conform to stereotypes, the people here feel alive and real. There's a genuine sympathy for the trials of everyday Americans on display here. That may be a little patronising, but it's refreshing to see nonetheless.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2022 movie reviews