Ostensibly a mystery, and a nifty one at that, VENGEANCE is much more. BJ Novak has spun a savage takedown of the media and elite presumptions, but one that is also considered, literate, and even a bit compassionate. At least on the level of allowing redemption of sorts for the silly creatures called human beings who inhabit this tale of identity, loyalty, and the magic that is Whataburger.
It is that first that pervades the story that finds Ben (Novak) in small-town west Texas at the funeral of Abby (Lio Tipton), a casual hook-up who has overdosed in an oil field. Not that her family knows that about him. They believe that he was the love of her life. Ben, a writer for the New Yorker and aspiring podcaster, goes along with that in the hopes of finding the story that will let him break into the podcasting big-time. A dead white girl, well, that’s the golden ticket. Thus does this Brooklyn hipster with a lack of empathy that he’s convinced is the opposite crash with Abby’s grieving family. They have convinced themselves that Abby’s overdose was not an accident, but rather murder, giving an amused Ben a hook for his story. Thus, does he immerse himself into a culture that refuses to accede to his expectations, even as he confirms most of its assumptions about him. This is a film rife with such irony, the which it embraces with a vise-like grip and a puckish enthusiasm.
Novak starts by giving us all the stereotypes we expect, both north and south, with the dry wit we expect from him. Abby’s family may see a murder investigation as something that requires firearms of several varieties, but Ben doesn’t know who won the battle of the Alamo. Then Novak does something clever. He reveals the fallacies of our assumptions by using them against us and proving that both Ben, and we, are as prone to believe the myth as are the so-called ignorant hicks who dot the sere Texas landscape. As one character tells him in a tidy comeuppance, people are complicated everywhere. That includes an aspiring filmmaker who loves rodeos and effortlessly shows Ben that she knows more about Chekov that he does when Ben makes the mistake of quoting the author to her. Then Novak goes one better, he shows us why we need myths to make sense of the world. Then he goes one even better and shows us why that’s good and bad.
As Ben “investigates” the murder, he naturally learns as much about himself as he does about the family that has taken him in, including the disturbing revelation that they might be on to something. It’s a situation that causes what passes for an ethical quandary for Ben, but not for his hotshot producer in New York (Issa Rae), who insists on shaping the story according to prescribed norms that will fulfill the expectations of the podcast’s demographics. Ratings, baby, ratings.
Yet there is never an attempt to make the same mistakes as podcast producers or urban writers. Novak does, along with the fine performances he elicits from all involved that are marvel of confirming and subverting paradigms, make these characters complicated in ways that never fail to challenge as they also engage. Good ol’ boys are capable of breathtaking insights. Drug dealers have many facets to their personality and are just as prone to believing the hype as hipsters. The local record producer (Ashton Kutcher) provides a dialectic on the importance of sound that is, literally, cosmic.
What cheap shots and cheaper laughs that are found here serve a higher purpose in illuminating the great divide about which Ben pontificates to impress that podcast producer at the start of VENGEANCE. As we see her compartmentalize the raw audio Ben sends back to her, reducing the people to talks to into characters, the artifice of storytelling at a remove comes into sharp focus, as does the necessity of an organizing principle to cut through the static and chatter. In a world as complicated as the people in it, simplicity is irresistible. Thus, do we return to the necessity of myth, with all its ramifications.
VENGEANCE is a fine philosophical precis on human nature told without a trace of pretension. It is also a fair warning, despite Ben’s constant refrain, about being 100% sure of anything.