If you walked into Vengeance only knowing the title, you might assume it’s a thriller where Liam Neeson wants his daughter and/or estranged wife back. Instead, you’ll get a quirky mystery comedy starring Ryan from The Office. The title is fitting, nonetheless, as Vengeance is about playing with expectations. The film centers on an aspiring podcaster who thinks he’s telling a story about one thing. Over time, the podcast becomes about something else, only to shift gears again towards the end. Just as the protagonist doesn’t always know what kind of movie he’s in, neither does the audience. The results can be uneven, but it’s a trip worth taking.
In addition to starring, Vengeance marks B. J. Novak’s feature directorial debut. Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a journalist who has something to say. He just doesn’t know what to say or how to express it. With a dozen stray thoughts swarming in Ben’s head, producer Eloise (Issa Rae) isn’t sure if he’s cut out for the podcast business. However, Ben stumbles upon a juicy story when a former flame mysteriously dies. Although Ben didn’t view the relationship as serious, she considered him her boyfriend. Guilt-tripped by her family, Ben travels to West Texas for the funeral. While there, her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) confides that he suspects foul play. Ben believes Ty is a conspiracy nut, but he thinks that the family would make interesting podcast characters.
Novak paints a faithful portrait of dead-end Texas where the rodeo reigns supreme, Twinkies must be deep-fried, and a Whataburger can be found on every corner. Also, if you’ve ever wondered what the six flags in Six Flags are, prepare for another cancel culture campaign. As the New York native develops an appreciation of the Lone Star State, Ben finds the family he never had in the girlfriend he never had. Although Ben isn’t entirely honest with the family, Vengeance puts a fresh spin on the liar-revealed cliché. That’s not the only way Novak’s screenplay keeps the audience on their toes. For most of the runtime, we’re not sure if Ty is just being paranoid or if a murder occurred. The film has a promising buildup, although it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
If you know the trick to spotting the guilty party in a Law & Order episode, one of the climax’s reveals won’t come as a huge surprise. Where this plot point is too predictable, another third-act twist just feels forced. Without giving too much away, one character commits a deed that doesn’t entirely line up with their arc. While the character evolves throughout the film, you don’t buy that they would be capable of this action by the end. It comes off as a Hollywood ending rather than the honest depiction of America that Ben is trying to capture.
Vengeance has a lot to say about our divided country, how we consume content, our obsession with murder, and the way people are turned into characters. The script can bite off more than it can chew, making the film feel about ten minutes longer than it is. Even at its most crowded, though, Vengeance creates some intriguing conversations that deserve to be heard. Ben’s pursuit of the perfect story reflects Novak’s screenplay. It’s not always focused, and the storyteller is still finding their voice. However, Novak demonstrates enough talent as a filmmaker to launch a potentially promising career in either cinema or podcasting.