Life Is Tough All Over in B.J. Novak’s Vengeance

Today's news that will shock no one: privilege is wasted on the privileged.

In B.J. Novak's Vengeance, there is no real catharsis, and it's in every sense tailor-made to its audience – that is, most people I know and interact with, both in person and online. We will recognize Ben (B.J. Novak) for being among those exalted few. As in a blue checkmark on Twitter, an actual staff position at a publication (THE NEW YORKER), and a cushy life in Brooklyn (where else?) who can even take a few weeks off to pursue his latest passion, a podcast.

But our world has come to such a state that it's inconveniencing even Ben's demographic, and the privileged can't necessarily count on writing their way out anymore. They pride themselves in knowing every story, every twist, and how success often translates to a cacophony of voices to the same end: endless regurgitation and analysis that is so omnipresent it ends up changing nothing. What other conclusion can you expect from life so shielded from actual consequences that they can acknowledge an existence filled with meaning and still imbue their outlook with a sense of nihilism?

The titles alone are clue-ridden about how we should expect no saviors, as a jaunty country tune accompanies a camera pan across a landscape littered with the aftermath of a party amidst oil rigs, only to give way to an entirely different brand of toxicity on a rooftop filled with New York's moneyed elite. The ensuing party dialogue and fonts promise a modern, blood-soaked Woody Allen meets Coen Brothers' yarn, at least until the third act, when no one is laughing anymore.

For all that, Vengeance is willing to task a few risks on its easy target (no one parodies a pretentious writer better than an actual pretentious writer who thinks a Harvard degree makes life tougher) when Ben discovers one of his many hookups, Abilene (Lio Tipton), has died thanks to a phone call from her grief-stricken brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook). Since revealing the truth would cause Ben a bit too much discomfort, he decides to fly out to Abilene's small decaying Texas hometown and attend the funeral.

Inciting Incident

To his credit, Ben is able to use his particular set of skills to summon up a few platitudes about Abilene being the song in their hearts to meet social niceties with passable muster, but he spots an opportunity when Ty insists that his sister was murdered rather than overdosing as the official report states. It's a potential true crime story about a dead white girl, our investment in conspiracy theories, and everything that makes a podcast spread far and wide. Why wouldn't Ben eagerly sign on? I myself can't deny that it had me furiously typing my review on the train ride home. And what could be a better endorsement?

Just don't expect spirits to stay up, because the movie's darkly comic tone eventually gives way to a spirit more in tune with the world of true crime podcasts Vengeance is bent on putting under a microscope. The trouble is this is still a movie, so we're gonna need some kind of definitive ending, (preferably the climactic kind) even if we've seen this story before, as Vengeance helpfully acknowledges more often than not.

It would be more annoying if Ben's producer wasn't Issa Rae, who couldn't stop elevating anything she was in if she tried. There's also Abby's family, who feel like genuinely authentic characters thanks to Novak's extensive research and great casting, Ben's predictably laughable attempts to ingratiate himself which naturally prove what an outsider he is, and the town itself, a place where the American Dream has been scraped raw.

It's a setting and a scenario where it's easy to see someone like Abby crushed under the weight of it. Or at least that's the sense we get from her digital ghost, a modern version of the Dead Girl trope which Vengeance shrewdly uses and examines in equal measure. Abby may be another dead white girl, but hers is the kind of story which doesn't tend to impact us until she dies. Otherwise, who would really be interested in the small town ingenue who didn't make it in the big city and returned to her depressing hometown?

Elevated? Maybe.

If Vengeance does have a cinematic contemporary, it's Ari Aster's folk horror Midsommar, which could be Vengeance turned inside out. Both are a look at women from a male perspective, and though B.J. Novak's satire isn't being marketed as a breakup movie, it was just as inspired by one as Midsommar was, with both protagonists on a darkly comic hero's journey in a land that's deeply foreign to them and horrors lurking in plain sight.

Turns out, plain sight is the perfect hiding place for the real villains in Vengeance and those that aid them, from every single law enforcement agency in the area to the usual stock characters whom Novak brilliantly interrogates even as they mostly conform to expectations, sometimes by necessity.

Hope may be in short supply, but that might be too much to expect from the demographic responsible for Vengeance, who are so used to seeing their actions have direct and very public results that their insight doesn't extend to seeing past violence and despair to those hidden lives quietly devoted to assisting others in ways which are unhistoric by nature.

It may result in yet another depressing vision of a decaying America which is now a genre unto itself, but Novak is at least more insightful in his self-criticism in his deeply humanist debut. But then, people like Novak can generally afford to despair for the simple fact that escape routes tend to be more readily available to them. Otherwise, it would be the same old song people in power tend to sing, especially when they're trying so hard to convince us of their powerlessness.

Rating: 7/10 SPECS

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Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.

She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.