‘Vengeance’ and Its West Texas Mystery

From climatic fight scenes in a Whataburger parking lot to commentary on media consumption, the opioid crisis, and more, B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance” tackles regional divides and puts West Texas charm on display. 

Novak, well known for “The Office,” makes his directorial debut with this film, along with being the writer, producer and leading actor. From the get-go, “Vengeance” is topical and witty through its comedic writing. The screenplay establishes a strong narrative and creates funny moments akin to “The Office.” Ben (Novak), a Brooklyn journalist/ podcaster and seemingly wannabe Casanova (in the first scene his best friend is John Mayer, seemingly playing himself, as the two discuss which nameless number saved their phones to spend the night with) is struggling to find his next big break. When a past hook-up (one he hardly remembers), Abilene (Lio Tipton), is found dead in an oil field from a drug overdose, Ben goes down to her hometown and funeral in rural West Texas.   

Once touching down, Ben meets his “girlfriend’s” family, played by J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron, Isabella Amara and Louanne Stephens. But, the plot shifts when Ben meets her brother, Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), who believes Abilene was murdered. When first assumed to be an unbelievable conspiracy, Ben decides whether there was foul play or not in Abilene’s death, this is his next big story. Getting the okay from popular podcast producer Eloise (Issa Rae), the mystery begins. 

Courtesy of Focus Features.

No, this movie is not revolutionary in its plot devices or storytelling, but it does touch on themes and real issues that are not only indicative of Texas but America as a whole and the divide that continues to spread.  While something like “The Office” tended to lack depth, this film has thought-provoking ideas while keeping things fun. 

I have a massive bias when talking about how much I enjoyed this film. I am from Lubbock, Texas, home of Texas Tech University, (the school and football team at the root of several jokes throughout the film) born and raised but currently, I go to school in the Northeast. The way that Novak was able to capture what it is to be in and from West Texas and how people from the northern states react, assume, or treat you, was pretty spot on. I saw this film in Lubbock with only a few other older couples scattered throughout the audience. There hasn’t been that much laughter in a theater here in a long time. In an interview with a Texas publication to promote the movie, Novak said he didn’t “want anyone to be the butt of the joke in the movie” and from the Texan perspective, it surprisingly never felt like that. 

Through several research trips and spending time in smaller communities, Novak (a Boston native) was able to capture the humor, charm and cultural intricacies of West Texas. Just like the film, I have told my college friends the story of the Alamo more times than I would like to admit; when describing where Lubbock is to a non-Texans I usually have to say almost verbatim a line from the film “you know where Dallas is? I’m five hours from that!” I have also pulled up my hand, extended my thumb, pointer and middle figure and pointed out where I’m from on the makeshift Texas hand map. He nailed it to the point that the final and most important clue came to him from stolen Whataburger table numbers — you can’t grow up in Texas and not have at least one of these in your room. The area the Shaw family lives in is tried and true West Texas from the historical aspects, the oil, the cowboys, the racism and guns, etc. And, while it might seem irrelevant to harp on the “West”  part of Texas, East and South Texas, some of the areas with the largest cities, not just in Texas but in the US, feel like a different world — which makes this film seem all the more like a love letter to this specific area.  

Even on a larger scale, something the film takes on very well is the way that people in Northern parts of the U.S, usually the northeast, are quick to look down on and jab at the South. While there are “bad” politics, it seems as if people don’t consider the systematic and historical pressures and effects that have perpetuated this divide, such as the lack of funding for public education, and gerrymandering that corrupts elections — aiding in keeping harmful people in the office — and more. Specifically, Texas has suffered from corruption and unfit political officials. Even recently, real lives have been lost, whether from the power grid shutting down during a massive freeze or repeated mass shootings, or the abortion rights that were stripped for Texans months before the overturning of Roe vs Wade. 

Courtesy of Focus Features.

People love to reduce the South, in this case, Texans–especially those in rural areas, down to uneducated hicks, much like Ben does at the start of the film. For example, while east coasters have a history of looking down on apparent acts of racism in the South (rightfully so), they have issues weeding out the less explicit act of racism (microaggressions for example) from their own society. One has to wonder whether east coasters as a whole are really anti-racist or anti-obvious racism; whether the Southerners are the problem, or if there are underlying deep-rooted issues. 

Reducing the problems of this country down to states below where you may reside does not help anyone. Shifting the blame to these regions further splits individuals and perpetuates stereotypes. Not only are others looking down on Southerners and pushing the idea that they deserved the problems brought onto them, but individuals are also overlooking the systemic factors that cause the current harmful systems to be in place. These are some of the obvious and not-so-obvious matters Novak attempted to shed light on throughout his screenplay. “Vengeance” takes a palatable, fun approach to examining these ideas and differences.  

“Vengeance” is now playing in theaters. 

By Brooke Stevenson

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