Vengeance may have red dust, cowboy hats, and boots, but it’s not really about Texas. It is, instead, about the pervasive and destructive nature of conformational static — the complexity of sameness.
With a moniker from Blumhouse Productions, one expects an entertaining film, a few well-timed jump-scares, and a strong dose of blood-tinged horror. But with Vengeance, Blumhouse Productions takes viewers on a journey of terrifying self-discovery.
At first glance, the movie lives up to expectations as a thinly veiled commentary on the lack of profundity in America’s heartland. However, a deeper and more terrifying truth emerges as the story unravels.
Some Unusual Characters
Filmed on location in the flat lands of oil-ridden West Texas, Vengeance stars an impressive ensemble cast including Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, Lio Tipton, and Dove Cameron. The lead is played by actor and screenwriter B.J. Novak in his filmmaking debut, while his New York foil Eloise is played by Issa Rae.
Vengeance covers two weeks in the life of Ben Manalowitz, drilling deep into Manalowitz’s self-importance. He is already a successful Brooklyn writer but desperately wants a voice. Surprisingly, he finds his chance to reinvent his career through the soulless and opportunistic use of a forgotten hookup’s death.
Digging a Little Deeper
Ben is truly self-absorbed, existing in an urbane bubble of ideas as words. He views the world as a concept to be presented and manipulated with verbal ferocity, altogether missing, for good or ill, the true nature of people.
Novak’s Ben Manalowitz is pitch-perfect. The opening cocktail party is, dare I say it, stereotypical of what passes for urbane sophistication. But that five-minute scene gives viewers a glimpse into Ben’s soul. It brands him as an entitled phony who has not yet discovered that influence and voice are not necessarily the same thing.
During another anonymous hookup, Ben learns that Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), a casual sex partner, told her family of their relationship with a few embellishments. Upon Abilene’s death, her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) calls Ben with the news.
Now, many could question the reality of this type of conversation. But it was a turnkey moment in the film, demonstrating how two people could be having two completely different conversations with surprising results – a trip to Texas.
After he lands in dusty West Texas, Ben learns of the family’s belief that the death is not an overdose but a murder. He agrees to help Ty if only to gain material for his podcast — “A Dead White Girl.”
The Shaws and their neighbors are bromidic. Or are they? Vengeance subtly points out that different is not necessarily fodder for amusement. And that it can cut both ways. Surprisingly in Vengeance, superficial cliches about six flags, gun ownership, and Texas football are transformed into positive qualities of loyalty, responsibility, and regret. There are a few jokes that only make sense if you are a true Texan and a couple of head-scratchers, such as the long-running gag about Texans and 911. Oh, and spoiler alert, one scene about the death of an electric car.
One of the outstanding performances of Vengeance is Ashton Kutcher’s Quentin Sellers. Kutcher’s portrayal of a surprisingly astute Marfa-based record producer is key to Ben’s transformation. With an audio recorder in hand, Ben hits the small Texas town trifecta that he thinks will elevate his podcast to the national stage. He meets the locals, attends a rodeo, and eats late-night at Whataburger.
Around the family dinner table, Novak quietly layers the personalities, most likely so as not to offend. Granny Carole (Louanne Stephens) leads the conversation – a stereotypical heartlander. But her convivial jokes expose a fierce belief in her family. Abby’s younger sisters are also named for cities. Wannabe filmmaker Paris Shaw (Isabella Amara) portrays a Texas Goth girl with a voracious intellect. And Kansas City (Dove Cameron) epitomizes the influencer culture and the pursuit of celebrity for its own sake. The littlest brother, El Stupido (Eli Bickel), portrays that unique combination of youth and practical wisdom.
First Timer’s Technique
It is hard to make hundreds of miles of flat dirt appealing to the camera, but the cast of Vengeance is so engaging that we forget, for a moment, the lack of scenery. There are the occasional Texas sunsets, which even Novak’s character admits are indescribably beautiful.
A more expansive soundscape could have helped Vengeance. Not using the plethora of local musical talent in the Panhandle and throughout Texas was a strong miss. The film’s pace is a bit ploddy, but considering the script’s verbosity, that may be unavoidable. It was also that overspeak that caused a few well-placed jokes to go unnoticed. Such as a brilliant summation of what small-town Texans think of their big cities. Three short sentences are hidden within the initial two-minute phone conversation between Ty and Ben.
The Vengeance storyline oscillates between tongue-in-cheek detective work and sentimentality for what could have been between Ben and Abilene. However, the not-so-subtle jab at Texas jurisdictional issues felt forced.
A Few Last Thoughts
While Novak’s timing is not flawless, it is solid, and the interconnectedness of such a dynamic and talented cast only adds to Novak’s directorial debut. Ashton Kutcher once observed that self-editing as an actor and director was one of the hardest things to do. Working with consummate actors who understood this gave Novak a pop. And that professionalism can be seen in the movie.
With a few unexpected twists, Vengeance efficiently resolves most of the story’s main themes leaving only one or two questions, including why Abby’s sisters are named after cities, for the expected next episode. But the best stereotype of Vengeance is undoubtedly the inclusion of deep fried twinkies and Cheetos chili pie-in-a-bag as staple foods. That was 100 percent dead on.
Whatever your expectations, this is an absolute must-see movie. It’s only 1 hour and 47 minutes long. So grab the Cheetos, a beer, or a box of wine. Vengeance is currently available for rent on Amazon Prime and streaming on Peacock.
Vengeance (2022) Official Blumhouse Trailer