Vengeance is a black satire on the cultural divisions of the United States

September 17, 2022 9:08 am

The notable directorial debut of actor BJNovak, Vengeance, sees a Brooklyn-based writer leave for West Texas with the goal of turning a family’s grief into a podcast. It is a satire that reveals the reality of our age like no one else can.

BJ Novak, best known for being co-writer and actor of the comedy series The officemade his debut as a writer-director-lead actor in the film Vengeance, produced by Blumhouse productions. I liked the film to a large extent. But I have to say I was tired, looking for light entertainment, and still under the amazing effect of Jordan Peele’s new movie, Nope, in the hall in the same cinema. The queue was all for seeing Nopewhich allowed me to have a kind of private screening.

Vengeance it seems to start out as one dark comedy of few pretensions, the story of a clash between opposing cultures, that between New York and Texas. The film’s first scene shows two insufferable media narcissists at a party – Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a Brooklyn-based New Yorker writer, while musician John Mayer, a friend of Novak’s in real life, plays the friend of Ben – who don’t stop checking the phone and keep interrupting each other. The topic of the conversation is the fact that their being unattached to anything or anyone is actually an admirable way to maximize the extraordinary possibilities that life offers. It is an exchange ironically marked by their repetition over and over “one hundred percent”, which denotes a total, absolute determination.

What follows is the story of how Ben is forced to spend time in a remote part of West Texas after the death of one of the many girls he dated, apparently from an overdose. Her grief-stricken brother Ty Shaw (played by Boyd Holbrook), believing Ben to be her boyfriend, uses guilt to force him to attend the funeral.

A conspiracy theorist, Ty is convinced that his sister Abilene “Abby” Shaw (Lio Tipton), described as so self-righteous that “he wouldn’t even take an aspirin”, could not have died of an overdose, and must therefore be was killed, possibly by a cartel of Mexican drug traffickers. Departing after her funeral in a pickup truck, armed to the teeth, Ty begs Ben to help him “avenge” Abby’s death. Shocked by the proposal, but trying to stay calm, Ben tries to get out by saying that one of the ethical limits he has set himself is not to avenge the deaths of people.

He also adds that he is not in the habit of acting as if he were in a Liam Neeson movie, referring to the action movies full of guns and shootings, which the actor specializes in. But Ty reassures him: “But you really look like a character from a Liam Neeson movie. What was the title? Oh yes, Schindler’s list! “.

According to Sellers, the problem with deep rural Texas is that it overflows with creativity but people don’t know what to do with it

At that point Ben realizes that this could be his opportunity to bring a sensational new podcast to Eloise (Issa Rae), a high-level producer who, in New York, accused Ben of being too closed in his thoughts, and that he had to work a little more with his heart. The result is Dead white girl – “the holy grail of podcasts” – cynically designed to harness public interest in both unsolved murders and theoretically authentic stories of a local color, featuring deep-seated real US characters.

Arriving in rural Texas, Ben is the classic fish out of water, lost in a culture he doesn’t understand and despises. Except that he has no one to exchange wry glances with on those desolate plains. Inevitably, as he spends time with Abby’s family and interviews locals about the girl’s life and death, Ben sees his superficial beliefs about republican states collapse one after another, becoming less and less obvious as they go. who knows people. This part of the plot, while predictable, is often quite entertaining, and is based on real experiences of Novak himself, who traveled the length and breadth of rural Texas to do research for this film: “I thought these big bearded dudes and pickup trucks would be very suspicious of a Hollywood Democrat dude, but the reality was. totally the opposite, ”he says. “It is the friendliest culture I have ever known. I went to Easter dinners and people showed me the poems they had written ”.

Ben’s guilt, who barely remembered Abby’s full name, and the attention and kindness that the girl’s family pays him, begin to dent his sense of city superiority. And his superficial ideas about him finally collapse when he meets Quentin Sellers (a surprisingly effective Ashton Kutcher), a refined man who wears a Stetson hat and whose record company is named after Andy Warhol’s Factory. Their first conversation is reminiscent of a moment of Half past twelve of fire (1974) by Mel Brooks, when the reluctant black sheriff (Cleavon Little) of a rough white town in the west meets the scholarly gunslinger Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) who asks him “what is a gentleman like you doing in this cheap town” .


According to Sellers, the problem with deep rural Texas is that it overflows with creativity but people don’t know what to do with it, and this ends up generating a domestic madness and a fantastic mythology that fuels cultural divisions. Sellers seems to be doing a better job as a seemingly ecumenical spokesman for the region than Ben, who has self-assigned the role of theorist and author of podcasts that will explain the United States to itself.

The film gets darker as Ty’s conspiracy theory about Abby’s murder begins to seem more and more realistic. And at the end of the film, which he tries to rapidly deepen, with a sudden burst of philosophical exchanges, followed by a violent conclusion, the question is: Did BJ Novak make the film he wanted?

For me, it failed. But that’s okay: it is the first attempt at a film for the cinema by this veteran of television. Novak is quite funny and satirical in an age where furious satire is the dark comedy they should be the rule and not the exception: it deserves to try again.

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)

Vengeance is a black satire on the cultural divisions of the United States