‘Vengeance’ DVD review
B.J. Novak’s terrific debut feature ‘Vengeance’ came and went at the cinema last year with such little fanfare, you’d be forgiven for not even realising that it had received a theatrical release. It was in October, apparently. If like myself, you completely missed this gem of a film on the big screen, you can pick it up on Blu-ray and DVD from January 16th, and you will be glad that you did.
Starting off as a classic “culture clash” style comedy, ‘Vengeance’ soon morphs into a wry and thoughtful Neo-noir thriller. Novak’s witty script takes dead aim at the culture wars that have consumed America for the past decade, whilst also finding time to tackle any number of trending topics, such as gun control, the opioid crisis, and of course the chasm like political divide between the coastal elites and the denizens of flyover country. It’s an ambitious film, bursting with ideas, and yes it’s a little over-stuffed, but he gets the balance of comedy and pathos just about right, and genuinely has something to say.
Novak plays Ben, a New York journalist, who we first meet in a hip Brooklyn bar espousing his theories on hook-up culture to his friend John (played by John Mayer). Their shared mantra is to validate each other’s inane statements on life with “100 percent” agreement. It gives us an immediate sense of the type of person Ben is. He talks like a podcaster, which incidentally is exactly what he wants to be. However, the producer he is pitching ideas to (Issa Rae) tells him that he hasn’t got a story to tell. It’s all theories in his head.
That’s when one helluva story lands right in his lap. He is woken one night by a call from a crying man, who tells Ben that his girlfriend Abby has just died from a drug overdose. This confuses him, as he doesn’t have a girlfriend. It transpires that Abby is a girl he hooked up with a few times, and was under the impression that things were a bit more serious than he thought, and has told her family back home in Texas that Ben is her boyfriend. Feeling guilty and a bit embarrassed, he travels across the country to attend her funeral.
The crying phone call man is Abby’s older brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook). After the funeral he tells Ben that he believes Abby was murdered, and asks for Ben’s help in avenging her death. Ben hilariously retorts that “as a personal boundary, I don’t avenge deaths,” but it does give him a great idea for a true crime podcast. Most normal people would be out of there in a flash, but Ben’s narcissism knows no bounds. He sees this as a chance to create the podcast equivalent of ‘In Cold Blood’.
What follows is a kind of fish-out-of-water, amateur sleuth murder mystery. Ben gets to know Abby’s family, including her sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City (Dove Cameron), her little brother who is less than affectionately referred to as El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel) and her mom Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron). He also gets a crash course in life outside his cozy little NYC bubble. It runs the risk of being one of those trite city slickers in the country movies, but Novak, and the characters he has populated his film with are too well-written to allow that to happen.
J. Smith-Cameron is terrific as the grief-stricken mother, and likewise Boyd Holbrook hides layers of anger and intensity just beneath the surface of his likeable southern hick doofus character. But the real surprise comes in the shape of Ashton Kutcher, playing a small-town record producer who had been trying to help Abby with her singing career before she took off to New York. He’s not in the film for long, but he delivers a couple of spectacular monologues, in what is surely a career best performance.
There’s a risk that ‘Vengeance’ might come off a bit preachy as it attempts to dissect so many themes of contemporary social culture, and yes there are a few moments which are very on the nose and where it sounds a bit like one of those dreary, sanctimonious twitter threads. However, I suspect Novak knows this, and it is probably intentional. But whether you believe that or not, this is still a thought-provoking and challenging film. A very funny, bitter, and savage indictment of modern America.
The DVD sadly is as vanilla as they come, with only the theatrical trailer included on the disc.