Films about the bordering-on-amoral ways news become content for the media industrial complex are some of the sharpest and most relevant works of social satire within cinema. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Sidney Lumet’s Network, and Alexander McKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success loom not only as some of the best films of this genre but also as some of the best films in American cinema history. It was inevitable that a film updating these themes for the true crime podcast era would come into being, and Benjamin Joseph Manaly (B.J.) Novak has made such a work. Vengeance, his Southern dark comedy mystery thriller, is an ambitious debut and is commendable even if it lacks the finesse, formal polish, and bite of more accomplished works.
The story begins when Ben Manalowitz (writer/director/star Novak), a New York journalist wanting to experiment with podcasts, is called to attend the funeral of a woman he hooked up with once. Her family believes that Ben was her boyfriend, and he feels obligated to attend the funeral out of awkwardness. Afterwards, Ben is asked by her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) to help investigate her death; Ty is convinced that she was murdered and that he needs to avenge her. Ben uses this opportunity to pitch a true crime podcast to producer Eloise (Issa Rae) in which he would interview the family and connect their grief and denial to larger systemic/sociocultural factors. Eloise greenlights it, and Ben documents events until he is eventually swayed to believe that maybe Ty is right. There is more going on here than what meets the eye, and there are twists and turns aplenty while true crime reporting via podcast is deconstructed as exploitative.
Studying podcasts as part of the media industrial complex is more pivotal to the film than studying Texas culture. The film is about people selling the idea of meaning and narrative. Throughout the film, Ben pitches the podcast, noting he can use it to speak on anything from the opioid crisis (his presumed culprit for the girl’s death) to the nature of revenge, while at the same time showing himself as initially detached from the subjects and only one in a whole industry of similar journalists. The question becomes how many of these other podcasters are like him, chasing stories and investigating in places they should not be for clout and capital.
This is not a new commentary, as evidenced by the recent comedy shows Only Murders in the Building and especially Search Party. Both Vengeance and Search Party operate as stories about the need for stories. Vengeance makes it literal as Ben sells the idea of his podcast, whereas Search Party follows Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) trying to find meaning in her otherwise vacuous life. Search Party becomes a more condemnatory version of true crime investigations than Vengeance, which allows for ambiguity as to the ethics of the reporting done by Ben.
Novak, most famous for his tenure on The Office, utilizes comedic and thematic ideas from that series. There is an emphasis on situational and cringe comedy; we are meant to enjoy characters fumbling about in challenging situations, barely escaping them with dignity intact. Of note, Novak finds humor in a situation where Ben gives a eulogy at the dead girl’s funeral but struggles to say anything of true meaning. While one might think his inability to eulogize is due to his sorrow, it is instead because he genuinely does not know her and cannot think of anything to say that would convince the congregation that he did. Several such ironies appear throughout the film with varying success, but Novak utilizes them well.
Furthermore, like The Office, Vengeance is aware that its protagonist Ben is unpleasant. His introduction, a conversation with John Mayer discussing how dating is now transactional and service-driven and women are disposable, introduces Ben as misogynistic and shallow. When he goes to Texas, Ben condescends to the rural folk, staying true to his earlier characterization as a self-absorbed reporter concerned exclusively with his own prestige. As the film progresses, he rather conventionally realizes that these rural folks have dignity and pride in their way of life, and he becomes a more empathetic and understanding individual. This is supposed to mirror the audience’s supposed turnaround on these characters. However, the film never earns this reversal due to its condescension towards those same characters, marking the film’s greatest flaw.
Social satires like Vengeance need to caricature the subject matter for comedy. In this case, Novak caricatures the rural Texan populace. This exaggeration becomes problematic as the film indulges in, at best, well-intentioned but unnuanced portrayals of Southern rural life. The film’s point is ultimately that these seemingly simple people have hidden depths and deserve dignity and understanding, as mirrored by Ben’s character arc throughout the film. Yet, due to the lack of nuance, the Texans never feel like characters with interiority, nor do they transcend Ben’s initial impressions of them. The film becomes guilty of the same neo-liberal condescension that mars other productions discussing rural subjects (think Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri or Tate Taylor’s The Help). One cannot help but feel a filmmaker like Jeff Nichols or Mike Judge, both of whom have sympathetically portrayed rural life, would find the right balance between this form of satirical comedy and societal commentary.
Vengeance is ultimately satisfying even though it’s an unadventurous and formulaic take on the subject matter, the novelty being Novak’s sense of humor and the aesthetic of podcasts. Despite its cleverness in interrogating journalism and true crime fixations, it still comes up with the same trite observations of rural and Southern America that so many Hollywood films do. Nevertheless, it is cleverly written, shrewdly observant, and rings with more earnest sincerity than other similar exercises. If nothing else, it suggests that Novak will continue to make interesting cinema in the future.
Written and directed by: B.J. Novak
Starring: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, and Lio Tipton
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Peacock