Vengeance

Content Caution

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Vengeance 2022

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Bob Hoose

Movie Review

As far as Ben Manalowitz is concerned, he’s lived a perfectly acceptable life so far. I mean, he’s a relatively young and decidedly insightful writer for The New Yorker. How many others can say that? And his social life is going pretty great as well. Like everybody else in New York City (or at least anybody Ben cares to consider) he jumps from casual hookup to casual hookup and avoids anything more.

“Fear of commitment is really fear of regrets,” Ben often says at any parties of like-minded people.

Despite all that, however, there’s still something missing. He wants to share more deeply with the world at large. And Ben believes he should do that through a podcast about America’s cultural divide, something that could nicely tie into his friend Eloise’s very popular American stories podcast.

Eloise tells him, however, that he has good ideas, but he needs a great story. That’s what will hook listeners. But solid stories aren’t as easy to come up with as pretentious speeches.

Then, in the dead of night the kernel of a story begins to sprout. Ben gets a call from some guy in Texas, of all places. It turns out that this man’s sister, Abby, died. And though this Abby is just another random hookup that Ben barely remembers—some young woman who dreamed of making music in New York—her brother, Ty, believes their relationship was very serious. And, of course, that means Ben will want to fly out for the funeral.  

Ben agrees to do it. I mean, if he had that kind of impact on a woman he slept with once or twice, he should at least make a quick flight and leave the family with their pleasant, if mistaken, ideas of their daughter.  

When Ben lands at the Texas airport, however, he finds there’s a lot more going on. Ty believes his sister was actually murdered. And he wants Ben to help him avenge that killing. Ben has no intention of doing that. But what he will do is stick around for a day or two and weave this situation into … a great story! It can be about America’s need for conspiracy theories. All he has to do is pretend to be investigating the “murder” while recording all the players involved.

Problem is, as Ben starts digging, he begins finding things he didn’t expect. For one, this Abilene Shaw was talented and thoughtful. She was sort of remarkable in her own way.

It’s too bad Ben was too self-focused to realize that truth to begin with.

Positive Elements

Ben finds out that Abby was the type of person who would befriend an outcast and go above and beyond to help him out. And her choices had positive impacts on some in the community. She was loving to her family members. She was also a pretty good musician who loved how music could benefit people. “Heart sees heart,” was something Abby liked to say, and others adopted the phrase.

And though Ben sees Abby’s family as little more than a bunch of people driven by their feelings and not at all by their brains (and they are painted here as broad Texas stereotypes) he’s quite surprised when they welcome him in as family and show up together when he is injured.

While looking back over his phone messages with Abby, Ben also sees how callous his responses and actions were. And when pushed to face the reality of their relationship, Ben declares: “I was hooking up with different people, and I assumed she was, too. Because I live in the real world. … She wasn’t my girlfriend. She was just a girl on my phone.”

Eventually Ben realizes that the world we live in desensitizes us to one another—a cautionary note that the film delivers, too. Our social media connections leave us searching for recognition and fame and fleeting pleasures, but offer very little in the way of real meaning or connection. “Everything is everything, so nothing means anything,” someone notes.

Spiritual Elements

Ben meets a local music producer who talks about the beginnings of the universe. “Whether it was God or something else,” the man notes, “it all started with a sound.”

A friend of Abby’s tells Ben that she would call and read Harry Potter books to him when his mom wouldn’t let him read those stories because of a “church thing.”

When Ben tells Eloise about his podcast idea she retorts, “Dead white girl: the holy grail of podcasts.”

Sexual Content

Abby’s younger sister tends to wear tops and outfits that bare quite a bit of skin. And we see that’s pretty common among the young women in town. We see quite a few women at a rodeo and dancing at a local bar dressed in formfitting and cleavage-revealing tops.

Casual sex and “exercising your options” are readily accepted behaviors in both New York and Texas. Ben talks of his easy hookup lifestyle. And he gets repeated messages from several women on his phone. One of Ben’s friends notes that he is casually dating six or seven women. Someone else brings up the “emptiness of the hookup culture.”

We see men and women making out passionately at a party. And when Ben gets the call about Abby’s funeral, he’s in bed with a woman who’s name he isn’t sure of.

Violent Content

Someone is shot in the throat and forehead, and the camera watches as blood pumps out and he dies. We see someone struggling to reach her phone in an open field before slumping face down and dying.

Abby’s grandmother tells the story of the bloody massacre at the Alamo. She also notes that Abby’s murder can’t be solved with a .45. Ben heartily agrees. But then she goes on to declare that they’ll need a 12-gauge shotgun, an AK-47 and several other lethal weapons.

Ben gets punched in the stomach, and he slumps to the ground gasping for air. Mason comes into Ben’s room holding a .45 that he wants Ben to help unjam.

Ben’s car is booby trapped and it blows up, sending him sprawling in the parking lot. We later see him with bruises and scrapes on his face. Ben meets drug dealers carrying guns.

Crude or Profane Language

There are more than 25 f-words and three or four s-words in the dialogue mix, along with multiple uses of “b–ch,” “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is abused a couple times (once in combinations with “d–n”). The male anatomy is crudely referenced, and someone flashes an offensive hand gesture.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Abby’s friends and relatives insist that she “never took so much as an Advil.” But her death was caused by an overdose of oxycodone. That leads Ben to investigate the drug trade in town, where he finds that booze and drugs are a big problem there. Large groups of teens and adults regularly gather in the local oil fields to party. We see people boozing and making out there at night, and we can also see that land is littered with plastic solo cups and other drug paraphernalia by day. 

Interestingly, there are some abusive, heavy drinking parallels in Ben’s world. In fact, the one picture they used of Ben and Abby together for the funeral was one where they were both drinking and obviously intoxicated.

When Ben has dinner with Abby’s family, the camera catches sight of various booze bottles on their table. People drink beer and booze at a rodeo and a local bar. Some get drunk. And we see a stoned young woman being dragged away to an “after party” by a couple large men. An officer shows Ben a box filled with “oxysticks” that are sold at local parties.

The soundtrack includes Toby Keith’s hit country song “Red Solo Cup.

Other Negative Elements

Abby’s brother, Mason, is called “El Stupido” by family members. (And while he is quiet, the boy has some striking insights from time to time.)

An oilfield party spot is located where different police jurisdictions overlap. The upshot? None of the local authorities want to take responsibility for cleaning up the drug abuse (and worse) that goes on there.

Ty declares that if they can discover Abby’s killer and post the name on Reddit, other people will likely take care of the killer for them. Ben verbally lashes out at Abby’s family, accusing them of being anti-vax, conspiracy theory types who believe the Earth is flat.

Conclusion

It’s easy to live online so much these days that you become purposely self-segregated in your own little bubble. You, your like-minded friends and your sociocultural dogma are good. But everyone else is very, very bad! And even though real people in the real world aren’t nearly so heated and bifurcated, fueling those divisions makes for good new media. It makes money, too.

And so, the culture war marches on.

In a sense, that’s what director B.J. Novak’s Vengeance is all about. Yes, it’s couched in a giggling cowpie comedy/drama about podcasts, murder, mystery and cultural contrasts. But dig past the surface, and you’ll find a movie that bemoans our hemorrhaging humanity. It warns us to throw off our predisposed blinders and really get to know the people we think we should dislike.

That’s the side of this film worth watching and mulling over. But then there’s the other side. Foul language, hookup-culture acceptance, eye-rolling stereotypes, boozy indulgence and vengeful bloody murder are all a part of this pic’s big picture, too.

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Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.