*This review contains some spoilers*
By Kharisma McIlwaine
According to a recent CBS News report, homicide rates have increased drastically since the pandemic began. Many of those homicides remain unsolved. An investigation done by the Washington Post in 2020 revealed that almost 26,000 murders in major US cities went without an arrest within the last 10 years.
The dark comedy and thriller “Vengeance” explores the topic of unsolved murders. B.J. Novak makes his directorial debut in the Focus Feature film where he is also the writer and star.
“Vengeance” centers around the life of journalist and podcaster Ben Manalowitz (Novak). After Ben receives a call in the middle of the night from the brother of Abby, one of his hookups who has died, he decides to travel from New York to Texas to attend Abby’s funeral. He later decides to stay and yields to the family’s request to help them uncover the mysterious circumstances around Abby’s disappearance and death. The ensemble cast includes Issa Rae (Eloise), Ashton Kutcher (Quinten Sellers), Boyd Holdbrook (Ty Shaw), J. Smith Cameron (Sharon Shaw), Lio Tipton (Abilene “Abby” Shaw) and Dove Cameron (Jasmine).
The film opens with a traumatic opening scene showing a person crawling on the ground in a secluded empty oil field, reaching for their phone. The film quickly cuts to a candid rooftop conversation between Ben and John Mayer, where the two unpack hookup culture. In their dialogue, they discuss not getting too close to the families of the people they are hooking up with and how the fear of commitment is actually a “fear of regret.” Shortly thereafter, Ben is engaged in a conversation turned pitch with Eloise (Rae), the head of one of the biggest podcasts in the country.
Ben’s life is thrown for a loop when he gets a call later that night from Ty (Holdbrook), his hookup Abby’s brother. Ty’s call is a desperate plea for Ben to help his family solve the death of Abby. Ben is confused at first when it is revealed that Ty and his family believe that he is Abby’s boyfriend. Instead of running for the hills, Ben uses it as an opportunity to pitch Eloise yet again on what would become the start of the podcast he’s always wanted. Eloise agrees to the concept, accepts the role as his editor and tells him to record everything and submit it. She tells him, “get the story and stay safe.” Ben replies “not in that order,” to which Eloise quips “in that order.” Ben names the podcast “Dead White Girl” and heads to Texas to begin the journey.
Once Ben arrives in Texas, he quickly breaks all of his rules about getting too close or involved with the family of someone he dated. As he studies text messages and watches old videos of Abby, he begins to feel regret for not taking the time to really get to know her. With the help of Ty, they travel to several locations where Ben interviews people that had direct contact with Abby before her disappearance. Ty not only wants Ben to help him discover the truth about Abby’s death, which he believes was a murder, but Ty and the rest of the family also want Ben to help them avenge Abby’s death.
Many things are not what they seem and despite several small warnings, Ben continues to put himself in the line of fire on his quest to get answers. Someone sends him a message in the form of a bomb in his car. Ben — still reeling from his near-death experience — has a complete meltdown when it is revealed that there are some circumstances surrounding Abby’s death that Ty intentionally did not share. Ben lashes out at Abby’s family, revealing that their relationship was superficial, and that she was just a hookup. The timing couldn’t be worse, as Eloise, happy with the content that he’s submitted, begs him to submit the podcast without making any changes. Embarrassed by his outburst, Ben has to decide whether he will continue to pursue the truth, no matter how high the stakes, or if he will pack it up and head back to New York. With an unexpected break in the case, Ben is able to finally unlock Abby’s phone which reveals who her killer actually is.
“Vengeance” leaves audiences on the edge of their seats right until the end with a very unexpected plot twist. Earlier in the film, Ben makes the following statement: “vengeance is different… it’s not about the future, it’s only about the past. It’s not about hope, it’s about regret.”
A life lived in regret is no way to live, which is a lesson offered to the audience of “Vengeance.”
In addition to the message regarding vengeance itself, the film also shines a microscope on the constant desire to prove one’s worth. The world of social media and podcasts has allowed people to build a platform from scratch, but at what cost? Are the number of “likes,” streams and visibility worth sacrificing one’s integrity? In the words of Abby, “heart sees heart.”
The movie “Vengeance” shows that it’s never too late to reevaluate our hearts and how we wish the world to see us outside of our careers and social status.
“Vengeance” opens in theaters nationwide on July 29. Check your local listings for showtimes.