Vengeance Movie Review (Spoiler Free)
Writer, director & actor! B.J. Novak’s first full-length feature is ambitious! Maybe a little too ambitious at times, as it has too much to say.
Genre: Comedy / Mystery / Thriller / Western
Director: B.J. Novak
Cast: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Ashton Kutcher, Eli Bickel, J. Smith-Cameron, Issa Rae, Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara & Lio Tipton.
Run Time: 107 min.
US Release: 29 July 2022
UK Release: 07 October 2022
German Release: 19 January 2023
B.J. Novak’s debut movie finally made it to Germany! As far as I am aware, Germany is the last country to release it theatrically! This one had been on my list since mid-2022. I am a fan of the director/writer, ever since his appearance in The Office, so I was happy to finally be able to see his work on the big screen! I managed to stay away from spoilers, not even seeing a trailer, though I did read the short synopsis on IMDb. After leaving the screening, I concluded that while entertaining, the veteran comedian’s first directed flick has a couple of flaws. So pick up your rifle, to scope with me through my review for Vengeance…
New Yorker journalist Ben finds out that a girl he barely knows, with whom he had a one-night stand, died in the middle of a Texan oil field. Her family persuades him to fly down south for her funeral and seek answers regarding her death.
Let's get the bad out of the way first, as there are a couple of things that drag the overall experience down. As straightforward as the premise sounds on paper, there is simply too much going on in the background. What I mean is that Novak packed the narrative full of philosophical subjects that felt unfulfilling by the end, as none of the issues that are picked up are truly explored or resolved. The mystery resolution was thus somewhat anticlimactic, feeling rushed. Other than that, I did have a blast with this cynical, neo-western comedy!
Absolute praise goes to how the plot evolved, the further it progressed. Starting with a strong nihilistic view of contemporary American society, audiences follow a narcissistic, shallow, New York journalist, who is completely disconnected from the world plus its people. As he is forced to fly to a small town in Texas, to the funeral of a past hook-up, his dreams of becoming a host to his own podcast show have a chance of becoming real, once he realises that he can use the family of his recently deceased one-night stand. What he doesn’t expect though, is how welcoming the people are, he came to mock.
That slow transition is the story’s soul. The culture clash between the liberal big city life and the gun-wielding western way of the south is what fuels the humour. However, it is never disrespectful! The jokes come from misunderstandings between two different cultures, mostly at the expense of Ben, as his ulterior motives make for hilarious, embarrassing comments that will surely make some people blush.
Dialogues vary between simple vocabulary and sophisticated discussions about the existence, or the meaning of life. That is not to say that Texans are represented as less argumentative, on the contrary! They are direct, their words carrying a lot of substance!
B.J. Novak plays Ben, a self-centred writer for The New Yorker, who is detached from the people around him, yet feels entitled to become the next big podcaster. He is so self-absorbed, he doesn’t care or even knows the names of the girls he sleeps with. This goes to such an extent that he sees the demise of a past hook-up as a possibility he can exploit, to create his own show. The portrayal is good, balancing the intimate dramatic, with the funny ignorant. His character is the one that progresses the most, even if it is a very simplistic path.
Boyd Holbrook is brilliant as Ty Shaw, the brother of the deceased Abilene Shaw! Believing that her relationship with Ben was more than it was, he convinces him to fly down for the funeral and find the person he believes killed his sister, to bond with him. Holbrook gave the character an incredible energetic charisma, being very openly welcoming towards the supposed boyfriend of his younger sibling.
Ashton Kutcher surprises, with a more laid-back performance. He plays record producer Quentin Sellers, who is kind of a reflection of Ben’s personality, thus creating a special relationship with him. His character has profound moments, though ultimately is as shallow as they come.
Further notable portrayals in smaller, supporting roles are those of Issa Rae, J. Smith-Cameron but the acting of young Ali Abrams is what truly deserved the honourable mention.
Cinematographically, Vengeance doesn’t feel like a first-time directed flick. Shots use proper framing and compositions, which underline dramatic or comedic segments. The lighting plays an equally important part, especially during night sequences that elicit an eerie atmosphere. The editing is solid as well, using jump cuts for a smoother pacing, or smash cuts to balance the two genres, blending them effectively.
Effects are practical, using small explosions or makeup for minor wounds and dirt. Costume design, on the other hand, represents the Texan lifestyle well, clashing with Big Apple culture. The set design stays true to the premise, varying between big, mansion-like ranches, open desert roads, family housings, plus New York apartment sights.
The film’s musical soundtrack, composed by Finneas O’Connell, has an ongoing western touch, mixing together fun energetic basses or eerier melodies, underlining the mystery element.
Verdict: It is a little ironic to watch a movie that mocks the disconnectivity of American society, criticising nihilistic just like narcissistic points of view, in a narrative where the writer, director and star of the story are the same people. This isn’t a criticism, simply a thought that ran through my mind, because Vengeance is a smart, fun, entertaining mystery. Yes, it has its flaws in the screenplay department; too many subjects are picked up, while the last act’s resolution falls flat. The performances are all, through the board, great! Especially those of Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw, who injected the plot with electrifying energy, and Ashton Kutcher playing a grounded, yet very philosophical music producer, who mirrors the personality of Novak’s character. The cinematography is competent, containing great scenes, a great colour palette, as well as efficient editing. The music suits the atmosphere of the scenery. All in all, Vengeance is a solid first-time directorial debut - a 7.5 out of 10.
I guess, by now most people around the world have seen it already. If you haven’t, give it a watch, it is really funny! Thank you for reading & if you like the content, subscribe!