B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance,” which premiered last night at the Tribeca Film Festival (it opens July 29), is an irresistible original — a heady, jaunty, witty-as-they-come tall tale that’s just grounded enough in the real world to carry you along. It’s at once an ominous heartland murder mystery; a culture-clash comedy that finds Ben Manalowitz (played by Novak), an acerbic New Yorker writer and podcaster, descending into the bleak depths of West Texas; and a meditation on blue state/red state values that gradually evolves into something larger — a cosmic riff on how the two sides of America are working, nearly in tandem, to tear the country apart.
Novak, an actor best known for his role on “The Office” (where he also served as a writer, executive producer, and director), brings off what could have been a rickety conceit as if he were holding the audience in the palm of his hand. “Vengeance,” which he wrote and directed (it’s his first feature), has been made with such confidence and verve, and it’s held together by a vision — of loss, ambition, addiction, conspiracy theory, and how we’re all victims of the contemporary image culture — that is so wide awake and sharp-edged, it marks the arrival of a potentially major filmmaker.
After a prelude set on a dark-as-midnight Texas oil field, with murky hints of foul play, the film kicks off with Ben and his buddy, played by John Mayer, scoping out women at Soho House, exchanging tips on how to play the hookup game. In the space of four minutes, the attitudes they express about serial dating and “commitment” — a concept as foreign to them as some ritual from a distant galaxy — are put forth with a compact misanthropic assurance that makes us think we’re seeing some 21st-century version of “Swingers.” (I have no doubt that Novak could make that movie, and that it might be as good as “Swingers.”) The ritual phrase of agreement they keep saying is “a hundred percent,” as if they were sure of it all. “Vengeance,” among other things, is a comic poke at the fake armor of cosmopolitan male certainty.
At the party, Ben makes a pitch to a podcast producer, Eloise, played with twinkling cynicism by Issa Rae, and we hear the intricate yet slightly annoying way his mind works. Ben’s theory that what’s actually fragmenting our lives is our newly controlled sense of time has much to be said for it. Yet we also can’t help but hear how in love he is with the sound of his own mind. He’s a brainiac narcissist, too full of theories, and Novak gives him a crackling surface and a saturnine depth. The actor, with his large eyes, whip-crack delivery, and glare of geek suspicion, would be well cast as Lou Reed. Yet in “Vengeance,” he makes Ben a thumbnail portrait of the new generation of New York writer careerists whose idealism is dunked in opportunism.
Ben has a date (when the woman arrives at his apartment, he greets her with a friendly “How’s book world?,” not realizing that she’s not the hookup from publishing). In the middle of the night, after they’re in bed, he’s awakened by a call from a scary-sounding Southern stranger, who tells Ben that his girlfriend is dead. This would be news to Ben, since the concept of a “girlfriend” is also from that distant galaxy. But he did know the young woman in question (they hooked up a few times), and before long he finds himself speaking at the funeral of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), right next to a photo of her with a guitar (“She loved music. I know that”), in rural Texas.
Why would he even be there? You have to roll with that one (though it’s actually explained down the line). Ben meets Abby’s family members — her mother, granny, and two sisters, her little tyke of a brother, and her older brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), a wild-boy yokel who has decided that Abby was murdered and wants Ben to help him solve the crime. He wants his vengeance. All this seems, for a scene or two, like a very movie-ish setup. Ben is the kind of New Yorker for whom Texas is not a real place; to him, Texas is the Austin of “South-by.” And as we glimpse the family pickup truck, with its twin rifles mounted on the back window, we wonder if the movie is going to be some glib Manhattan-swell-among-the-gun-nuts, geek-out-of-water comedy.
It quickly transcends that. Novak introduces clichés and stereotypes only to detonate them — or, better yet, fill them in in ways that show us how the stereotypes are real and not real. Abby’s family members are a bunch of rednecks, but that doesn’t mean they’re dumb, or unworldly, or not plugged into the currents of urban technology. They’re characters who keep surprising us. Ben, sensing an opportunity, decides to stay and make a podcast out of Abby’s death, keeping his digital phone recorder on during every conversation. It will be like “In Cold Blood” for the age of progressive radio, with Ben as the murder investigator and reporter. “I will find this person,” he tells the family, “or this generalized societal force. And I will define it.” He titles the podcast “The Dead White Girl” (Eliose, back in New York, is editing and advising), and “Vengeance” turns into the story of an East Coast creative telling a tale of backwoods locals even as his own blindness becomes central to their story.
The film’s perceptions arrive as jokes, and vice versa, whether it’s Ben trying (and failing) to get Ty and the others to define why they love the WhatABurger fast-food chain beyond the fact that it’s always right there. Or Ben being hilariously outed at a rodeo for the Northern wimp he is. Or Abby’s sister Paris (Isabella Amara) accusing Ben of cultural appropriation, to which he responds that her use of the term “cultural appropriation” is an act of cultural appropriation (they’re both right). Or a local music producer named Quentin Sellers, played with dashingly sinister aplomb by Ashton Kutcher in a white cowboy suit, explaining how and why conspiracy mania took over the heartland. Was Abby killed, or did she die of an opioid overdose? That’s the mystery, and it’s resolved in a way that puts a haunting cast of mythology over the spiritual despair of Middle America.
In a good way, “Vengeance” makes up its own rules. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie, like a Preston Sturges comedy fused with the free-floating what’s-it-all-mean? dread of “Under the Silver Lake.” But this movie, unlike that one, has a pretty good idea of what it all means. It’s voiced by the film’s most brilliant and disturbing character, who explains, in a way that may blow your head open a little bit, why the very way our culture now dissects and explains everything has had the paradoxical effect of robbing anything and everything of meaning. It’s the death of communication not just by social media but by all media, and in “Vengeance” the way it plays out in the heartland, where indifference can be a form of hate, makes a statement that reverberates. In “Vengeance,” B.J. Novak proves a born storyteller with the rare gift of using a film to say something that intoxicates us.