REVIEW: ‘Vengeance’ is an impressive look at true crime podcasting

Being a fan of true crime podcasts isn’t a necessity to enjoy this film, but it doesn’t hurt.

B.J. Novak, who wrote and directed “Vengeance,” stars as Ben, a writer at the New Yorker and an aspiring podcaster. One night after a failed pitch for a new podcast, he finds out a woman he had a short fling with died in Texas.

The woman’s brother convinces Ben to come to the Lone Star State not only for the funeral, but to look into her death, as it seemed suspicious. Ben decides to use this as a chance to create a podcast based on the woman’s death, and the concept of vengeance, as the brother is seeking it.

True crime is a rather saturated area of media right now, so making something that will catch one’s attention takes some creativity. It was true with Hulu’s hit series “Only Murders in the Building,” and it’s also true with “Vengeance.”

This is Novak’s debut as a writer and director, and it’s a solid freshman effort, despite a few stumbles here and there. For example, the film has some secrets a few characters are hiding which a viewer can expect will cause a blow-up toward the end of the second act.

It’s a dramatic tool in cinema often making moments that are supposed to feel tense come off as rushed, and “Vengeance” is no exception.

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Courtesy Focus Features and Blumhouse Productions.

Another issue is how Novak’s movie sort of loses its focus in the middle. The film is at its strongest when Ben is meeting and interviewing new people who each have their own unique input on the death and the community as a whole, and the movie leaves a person wanting more of that.

The film certainly could have benefited from more scenes of these interviews, rather than, say, a part of the film where Ben accompanies  the family to a rodeo.

However, “Vengeance” is able to overcome these issues because of how it examines the anything-for-a-story attitude some can have when it comes to reporting. It ultimately makes for a compelling character journey.

Ben is so desperate to make a podcast that he starts building narratives without even having a chance to settle on the human element of the story. Whether Ben is trying to frame the podcast as one about how people can be vengeful after a tragedy or about how Abby really died, it’s clear early on that he’s missing the forest for the trees.

As the character himself finds out as the film progresses, the real story goes beyond just what’s in his podcast. It’s about how this family has been impacted by a tragedy, how an opioid epidemic has led to deaths in the area like, potentially like Abby’s, and how the community is let down by inefficient law enforcement.

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Watching Ben come to terms with the human elements beyond just what his podcast needs is wonderfully engaging and it ultimately leads to a surprising conclusion. Novak definitely deserves credit for his bold ending in this.

While the film has plenty on the dramatic side, though, it’s also notable for its comedy. While plenty of the gags draw on how Ben is different as a city fellow in a rural area, the humor still works.

There’s a genuineness with the characters featured which helps the humor feel more natural and therefore work effectively. The writing is quite clever overall, and it produces laughs.

The acting is quite good, too. Novak plays a character who isn’t particularly a great guy, as he has some selfish motivations, but the man is also deeper than just a headline chaser. Novak pulls this type of character off nicely.

Boyd Holbrooks deserves credit for his work as Ty. Like Ben, Ty may have been a more one dimensional character in another work, but thanks to the script and performance, there ends up being more going on.

Like the gravel roads often found outside cities, “Vengeance” can be a little bumpy at times. Yet the journey and destination end up being worth it. 3.75 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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