written by Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post
The movie “Vengeance” — a black comedy about cultural arrogance, the opioid crisis, guns, storytelling and the need to, well, get even — marks the feature debut of writer-director-producer B.J. Novak (best known as a writer, director, producer and ensemble cast member of “The Office”). To call Novak’s first feature auspicious would not be wrong, but it’s more than that. “Vengeance” is an arrestingly smart, funny and affecting take on a slice of the American zeitgeist, one in which both the divisions between and connections with our fellow citizens are brought into sharp relief. It’s a terrific yarn, both provocative and entertaining, which might only surprise those who aren’t familiar with Novak’s best-selling children’s book, “The Book With No Pictures.”
Novak also stars here, as journalist Ben Manalowitz, a sometime New Yorker magazine writer and podcaster for the “This American Life”-esque “American Moment,” with a Manhattan-centric view of flyover country to rival the geographic myopia satirized by illustrator Saul Steinberg in his famous 1976 cover for that magazine, “View of the World From 9th Avenue.” When Ben gets a call from the brother of Abby Shaw — an aspiring singer Ben “hooked up” with a few times, in his words — telling him that she has died of an overdose of OxyContin and insisting — inexplicably to Ben — that Abby (short for Abilene) would have wanted her “boyfriend” to attend the funeral, he is given no choice but to agree. Once Ben reluctantly flies out to West Texas and the brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), informs Ben that he believes Abby’s death was murder and that the two of them should collaborate to avenge it, violently, Ben hits upon an idea, but only after pitching it to his podcast editor back home (Issa Rae).
Ben will do some interviews and put together a story: perhaps not the kind of investigative exposé Ty expects, but one that looks at Texas, and Abby (Lio Tipton, seen in cellphone video clips and recorded music performances), as symptoms of a deeper malaise. Ty calls that an acceptable compromise. “Once the people on Reddit find out” who the murderer is, he says, “they’ll kill him for us.” But all that Ben has really promised, in his cagey way, is this: to find the person — or, as he carefully puts it, “the generalized societal force” — responsible for Abby’s death, and to “define” it.
It’s a slippery vow, and it suggests, for obvious reasons, that what follows is going to involve an unfairly patronizing caricature of rural American life and the Shaws, including Granny Carole (Louanne Stephens), mom Sharon (J. Smith-Cameron), sisters Paris and Kansas City (Isabella Amara and Dove Cameron), and little brother Mason, a.k.a. El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel).
But Novak is too smart for that, and if anyone comes across badly here, it’s Ben, whom Novak is big enough and self-effacing enough to gently ridicule. The supporting cast gets off relatively easy, and includes a remarkable performance by Ashton Kutcher as Abby’s slick and silver-tongued record producer, Quentin Sellers. Quentin is a kind of cowboy poet/philosopher in a 10-gallon hat and embroidered white suit that looks like something made by the late tailor-to-the-country-western-stars Nudie Cohn. Under Novak’s low-key direction, Kutcher never pushes the performance too far. Like the narrative itself, which zigs when you expect it to zag, Quentin is full of surprises.
Superficially, “Vengeance” is a murder mystery, with its share of red herrings, a password-protected cellphone belonging to the victim and a Suspect No. 1: drug dealer Sancholo (Zach Villa), who also turns out to be something other than expected.
If “Vengeance” has a weakness, it’s that it sometimes comes across as a little too written, for lack of a better word. Too often, characters talk in a way that sounds less like themselves than like a guy at the keyboard of a laptop: a little bit Ben Manalowitz and a little bit B.J. Novak.
It’s a small quibble. This is a movie worth seeing, and listening to its unpredictable insights. There’s a running joke in the film: Ben signals his assent, over and over, with the hyperbolic catchphrase “a hundred percent.” Is “Vengeance” a flawless movie? No, but it’s 90 percent perfect. Costume Design by Rachel Sage Kunin.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, drug use and brief violence. 107 minutes.