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Release Date: 07/29/22 [Cinemas]

Genre: Comedy/Mystery/Thriller

Studio: Focus Features

"A radio host from New York City attempts to solve the murder of a girl he hooked up with and travels down south to investigate the circumstances of her death and discover what happened to her."


Maybe it was the marketing. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a big enough fan of B.J. Novak’s work outside The Office. Maybe it was because I actually produce podcasts for a living (this isn’t a shameless plug). I was pretty indifferent going into Vengeance. However, it might just go down as one of my favorite films of the year.


Written and directed by Novak - in his feature directorial debut - the film is set against the backdrop of the conspiratorial South. It follows a posh podcaster who gets caught up trying to solve the murder of a young woman he used to casually hook up with. While it might sound like a straight-up Mad Lib, the story is actually a perfect examination of modern America. 


Novak also stars in the film. When we first meet his character, Ben, he’s a shameless player. Every girl in his contact list is filed under her hair color or occupation, and he has no intention of ever settling down. That reluctance to commit carries over into his day job as a podcast producer, where he struggles to really follow through on any of his other assignments. 


One night, he receives a phone call from a man named Ty Shaw, played by a surprisingly boisterous Boyd Holbrook. Upset, Ty tells Ben that his sister named Abilene has been found dead from a drug overdose. There’s only one problem. Ben doesn’t have any idea who that is. When Ty refers to “Abi” (as she is referred to for the rest of the film) as Ben’s girlfriend, he becomes even more confused. It takes a few moments - and a quick Instagram search - to realize that Abi was actually an old hookup partner who clearly jazzed up their relationship to her family. Although Ben tries to explain the truth to Ty, Ty dismisses him and insists that he come to the funeral.


Surprisingly Ben goes, and Abi’s hometown turns out to be one of the most conservative places in Texas. Everyone’s got a gun and a theory. And when it comes to Abi’s death, the most popular theory is that she was murdered. In fact, what starts as a funny one-liner becomes a creed her fellow community members consistently communicate to Ben and stand by: Abi wouldn’t even go near an Aspirin. But before he even lands, Ben’s already got his mind made up about these people. To him, they’re just gun-toting hicks and hacks. When Ty asks if he’ll help solve Abi’s murder, Ben gets the idea to exploit them for entertainment. He pitches a podcast to his boss (played by the slightly underused Issa Rae) about how disconnected people in that town are from reality. But what starts as a farce actually becomes a real investigation into what happened to Abi and an unlikely introspective journey.


The film as a whole is really an introspective journey. I realize how bold this may sound, but it’s one of the best-written scripts I’ve seen put to screen in quite some time. I don’t just mean that the situations Ben consistently finds himself in are funny or that the themes are clever. All of that is true but, above everything, Novak crafts his characters to act as messengers. Throughout the film, they vicariously convey his refreshing outlook on the world. Ashton Kutcher’s character is arguably the best messenger too. In what is easily one of his best performances to date, he plays a local music producer named Quentin. As sleezy as he seems, he winds up being the one who proves to Ben that not everything should be taken for face value, and that he may not be so different from the people he is mocking with his podcast.


My favorite thing about the film is that it’s not your conventional detective story. Aside from the fact that the primary detective character is actually a cynical podcaster, it has so much to say - and says it so effectively - that the mystery at its core becomes irrelevant. That’s not to say that Abi’s death takes a backseat, but you start to care less about what happened, and more about why humans are the way they are.


In a film about subverting expectations, Novak’s turn as a detective-like character is the most surprising. The fact that he takes the reins on the investigation while Holbrook, who has actually played an agent several times before, acts as comic relief is a pleasant twist. The fact that his character isn’t even a true crime podcaster, the epitome of an amateur sleuth, is also funny.  The way he quickly learns to navigate the genre in order to manipulate the narrative speaks to how the media operates on a larger level.


Once again, as a professional podcaster (seriously, don’t click this link), I think Novak really nailed what it’s like to work in the journalism industry. And he does it in a way that is equal parts parody and homage. He highlights how reporters have to face people that are crazy or even dangerous to unearth the truth. There’s actually a really great scene where Novak has to interview a drug dealer. As with everything else in the film, it takes a totally unexpected (comical) turn. Novak also illustrates how common it is to fall down the rabbit hole and stumble upon a story within a story, especially when what you’ve uncovered is more profound than what you were originally given. That’s probably the best way to sum up Vengeance as a whole too.


Now, were there things I didn’t like about the film? Yes. Are they major? No. Admittedly the editing at the very beginning and at the tail end. The opening credits are intercut with a conversation Ben has with a gratuitous cameo. It’s funny, but it’s a bit distracting and also feels experimental. On the other hand, the ending is a bit too abrupt. While it doesn’t work visually, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve actually grown to like it since my initial viewing. Truthfully, I don’t think the film’s final words would weigh as much if it weren’t so succinct.

Overall, Vengeance wins the award for biggest surprise of the year. Not just because it’s produced by Blumhouse and it’s not a horror film (seriously), but because it’s one of the most thought-provoking comedies of the year. Silly, smart and shamelessly reflective, the film proves that, even though revenge isn’t everything, everyone deserves justice. And while it’s easy to get even, at the end of the day we’re all still equal.

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