8/10 Night, West Texas, red solo cups litter the ground. A young woman is dragged away from a party to die, witnessed only by natural gas wells churning silently in the desert. Two thousand miles away, Old Glory catches on the East River breeze and unfurls proudly over the Brooklyn Bridge as the class of Manhattan magazine writers mingles in nondescript celebration.
The wee hours of that morning, New York Magazine reporter Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak, who also writes and directs) gets a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) to tell him that his sister, Abby Shaw, is dead. Under the impression that Manalowitz was Abby’s boyfriend, the Shaw family insists he come out to Texas for the funeral, where Ty Shaw confides to him that Abby’s death, an open-and-shut overdose on the opioids readily available on the oilfield, was actually murder most foul, a conclusion based on nothing but his own intuition. Manalowitz commits to stay and record a podcast about his search for vengeance.
Vengeance hangs on a very solid “want vs need” narrative skeleton, what’s cited as a common character arc but can only really work this well in a journalism or detective story, where the main character is necessarily separate from what he’s focused on. It’s an inherently dynamic setup. The storyteller dictates the story, but the story changes the teller.
Manalowitz’ focus is extracting from the Shaw family a grand story about the death of the American identity and the search for someone to blame, at least at a high level. As the drama twists, he composes several starts and transitions for his podcast, resulting in a movie with a lot of B.J. Novak turning to the camera and telling you what the story is about, but this isn’t “The Office.” Manalowitz isn’t prepared for what he finds, and as a result, he never seems to know what his story is about for too long.
He needs to confront his solitary lifestyle, a need that is woven into how he enters the story – Manalowitz only saw Abby Shaw two or three times among many other women, and he is with another woman when he’s called about her death. His complete lack of grief is what enables him to approach the situation as a story. The film’s most powerful moment is when his slick people-pleasing and cold-reading skills, his main tools as a reporter and invaluable in that context, become cruel when he relies on them in a personal setting, but he quickly realizes he has nothing else to rely on.
The “want” and “need” narratives don’t coexist well, and Manalowitz’ personal growth feels too much like a distraction from the main narrative. The film spends time passing judgment on his womanizing when it would have more depth as a work by keeping a distance and reflecting back on him in subtler ways.
It’s also hurt by the fact that the “want” is much more compelling. As the fictional Manalowitz searches for the divide in post-Trump America, the real filmmaker that plays him, Novak, thinks he has a solid enough hold on it to satirize. Abby Shaw’s funeral is presided over by a frocked Catholic priest in a cowboy hat, and from this image alone, you can see that Novak is missing some very important things about West Texas – the Shaws are absolutely not Catholic. It also doesn’t help him that the Coen brothers’ recent Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men already perfectly captures the isolation and paranoia of West Texas, the eerie endless expanse that seems to stretch on forever and close in around you at the same moment.
Novak, who lives in Los Angeles, put the time in with several trips to West Texas, and though it may not perfectly capture that specific stretch of wasteland, his portrayal captures many truths about deep conservative America. When he asks the Shaw family to explain ravenous appeal of Whataburger and they can only cite its omnipresence, when they aren’t even able to say what they would like to order, Vengeance doesn’t poke fun at the Texas trope. It reveals the lack of curiosity at the heart of the story, the comfort of mantra that suffocates any attempt to leave. Vengeance is about the people who remain in rural America insisting there is a particular magic in the place they’ve never left, and it reflects the characteristics such people must have.
The movie is too judgmental about its lead character and his subjects to work properly, but Vengeance is funny, insightful and heartfelt.