In many ways, Vengeance is a misnomer, so don’t let the title attract or repel you for the wrong reasons. It’s funny throughout. At times it’s profound. And while it’s also a murder mystery, billing it as a “thriller” seems over-the-top, even though the mystery’s climax strikes like a bolt of lightning.
When Ben (B.J. Novak) arrives in West Texas for the funeral of a young woman he barely knew, he’s already shown himself to be a superficial cad. The phone call that brought him so far from home—New York City—was from the dead woman’s brother, whose family believes Ben was their beloved Abby’s boyfriend. In fact, Ben barely remembers the girl he “hooked up” with a few times. He’s a journalist and Abby Shaw was an aspiring singer, and they might have met at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin or in Manhattan.
After the funeral, where Ben is asked to speak, brother Ty tells Ben that their next job is to track down Abby’s killer and kill him, which is where the “vengeance” part kicks in. Except that “vengeance” isn’t Ben’s thing. He’s a magazine journalist and a wannabe podcaster, and now he has an idea for the podcast producer who’s rejected his pitches up until now. She loves the “Dead White Girl” idea, and so his collaboration with Ty begins. Ben sees his role as finding the “generalized societal force” that was responsible for Abby’s death and defining it. Whatever that means. Ty more or less agrees, telling Ben, “Once the people on Reddit find out, they’ll kill him for us.” Abby’s official cause of death was an opioid overdose, although Ben is told over and over that Abby never swallowed so much as an aspirin. And yet, she was found in the middle of the desert near an abandoned oil pumpjack, the site of many a party where bad things sometimes happen.
The Shaw family invites Ben to stay at their home, where Abby (short for Abilene) lived with her mom Sharon, Granny Carole, and her other siblings, sisters K.C. (short for Kansas City) and Paris, and younger brother Mason, who goes by El Stupido. “Societal forces” and various clues lead Ben to talk to Abby’s lifelong friend Sancholo (a major drug dealer), the various law enforcement agencies responsible for that wild patch of West Texas (city police, county sheriff, highway patrol, Border Patrol) and Abby’s silver-tongued record producer Quentin Sellers (a fabulous Ashton Kutcher).
What’s so compelling about this film is the fish-out-of-water storyline. Today we live in a divided country where we can’t even agree on the facts. Black is white or white is black, and never the two shall meet—at least where politics are concerned. But take politics out of the equation and right is right and wrong is wrong, as Ben—much to his surprise—discovers.