One of the most poignant films of the year, Vengeance (2022) is a dark comedy/thriller written, directed by and starring B.J. Novak; if you missed it in the theaters, do yourself a favor and stream it on Peacock.
In Vengeance, we follow Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak), a podcaster based out of New York City who is looking for a story. Following a usual night out in the city, he receives a call from a relative of a woman he had a sexual relationship with in the past. During this call, he learns his former hook-up, Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) is dead and her family wants him to come to her funeral. Feeling guilty, Ben travels out to Texas for her funeral to meet the Shaw family. Upon meeting the family, Ben learns that the family is under the impression that he and Abilene were in a serious relationship. When Abilene’s brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), expresses to Ben that he believe’s Abilene’s murder to be foul-play, he asks for Ben’s help in seeking vengeance. Initially taken aback by Ty’s request, Ben agrees to help Ty investigate by making Abilene’s mysterious death the subject of his podcast.
While documenting the details of Abilene’s life, Ben is pitching the story to his editor, Eloise (Issa Rae), who is back in New York. Hoping to cash in on the popular “dead white girl” true crime niche, Eloise gives Ben’s idea the green light. Although the subject at the center of the podcast is Abilene, Ben hopes to make a more political statement about the southerners in general. As Ben is welcomed into the Shaw family and their way of life, he gains a contradicting perspective that challenges his initial feelings about the community and Abilene herself. As he digs deeper into Abilene’s life, he comes to realize that his preconceived notions may have been all wrong and hopes to make Abilene famous posthumously. Through his ventures across town looking for answers, Ben unexpectedly comes face-to-face with the actual truth. Ultimately, he must choose between his normal sensibilities and vengeance.
Vengeance is a pleasant surprise. Not only does it feel like watching a true crime podcast playing out before your eyes, but it actually challenges how we memorialize people, for entertainment purposes, only after they have suffered. Abilene Shaw is reminiscent of the missing and murdered women that are often the subject of podcasts. The stories are never as simple as one is made to believe and with the uncovering of their life comes an intrusion. Ben is exploiting the story of a woman that he hardly knew (or wanted to know) in real-life, but ironically, he obsessing over her in death. He makes Abilene into a character, who serves as the victim of his story. Of course, the podcast subject matter feeds into a larger narrative that has nothing to do with Abilene the woman, and more to do with Abilene, TX.
This film is as funny as it is enlightening. B.J. Novak gives a stellar performance that is heavily anchored by a strong supporting cast consisting of Boyd Holbrook, Ashton Kutcher and J. Smith-Cameron. It also has one of the most surprising conclusions that begs you to remember how Ben got to where he was. Vengeance clearly has a message, but it is not preachy in any sense. If you want a darkly entertaining, smart, true crime thriller, you may be in the mood for Vengeance.
Vengeance is now available to stream exclusively on Peacock.