“Not every white guy in America needs to have a podcast,” expresses another character to Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) early on in “Vengeance.” But Ben, a staff writer for The New Yorker, aims to write the next great American novel in a time when it has arguably become obsolete. So, how else can he reach the same heights of glory, fame and impact than through the digital medium of the podcast? After all, the podcast is one of the few mediums of today that captures the American imagination the same way a novel would have 50 years ago.
In “Vengeance,” written and directed by Novak, Ben has a lot of theories about the discontent bubbling in America. He aims to wax poetic on these parochial convictions through a theoretical podcast, but prominent podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae) insists that Ben needs a story that can guide a thesis, rather than the other way around. Luckily, the story comes to him: Ben receives a call from Ty (Boyd Holbrook), who tells him that his sister Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton) has died.
While Ben hardly knows Abilene, having only hooked up with her a few times, Ty is seemingly convinced that Ben and Abilene were in a relationship. He invites Ben to Abilene’s funeral in West Texas to help him seek vengeance against whoever may have been responsible for Abilene’s death, despite the official verdict being that Abilene died of an opioid overdose at a party in West Texas (“She never took so much as an Advil!” several townsfolk parrot later on). Ben doesn’t share Ty’s suspicions, but he decides this is the perfect stage to set for his podcast, selling Eloise on a project that appears to follow the conventions of a typical true crime podcast only to really be an excavation of the American South. Over the course of his stay with Ty and his family, Ben predictably comes to harbor some genuine affection for them, just as his involvement in local affairs begins to show the promise of a legitimate case.
Ironically enough, most of the film’s faults can be reduced to the early questions Eloise asks of Ben, even as these questions were meant to give the appearance of self-critical reflexivity. “Vengeance” often feels like it utilizes characters as walking theses. Novak’s script alternates between coloring inside the lines of character clichés (to successful comedic effect) and complicating character types when convenient within the film’s narrative. As such, these latter attempts at subverting character types — whether it be coastal media elites or rural gun owners — frequently feel contrived, almost as if Novak’s characters have knowingly contorted themselves to fit into his didactic, writerly lines of argument.
While Novak’s feature directorial debut is generally shot with little visual subjectivity, a handful of wide shots of vast landscapes within the heartland of West Texas evoke an empathy that often feels lacking within the film’s script. The sparse hills and mountains of West Texas convey a tragic paradox: seemingly endless spatial possibility hindered by the region’s material conditions, blunting liminality.
Perhaps, in its ambitious attempts to address a gaggle of ideas, what “Vengeance” posits most effectively is that, within a hyper-digitized, hyper-individualistic culture, it is a susceptibility to the lofty promise of digitized fame and fortune that binds Americans (whether from red or blue states) together.
“All that’s left of us is recordings,” a character says towards the end of the film. These recordings can’t change the American institutions and epidemics that harm us, nor do they aim to. They signify nothing. They are nothing. They’re just separate, individualized truths; a part of the vast technological cosmos that eludes anyone from interacting with the present moment, with reckoning with any of the mud at the gears of the American enterprise.
Ultimately, there’s always a story in your camera roll to look back to, to use as marketing fodder in a quest for the stars. And any of these stories can mean anything, so in a greater sense they signify nothing. So, “Vengeance” provocatively asks, where do we go from here?