Awards season is no way to find the best films of the year. By now, it feels like the Oscars have become a niche industry of the people at the festivals, for the people of the festivals, and by the people of the festivals. Everything seems to be in place except for one thing: audiences. Who wants to see these movies?
The divide between the movies people pay to see and want to watch and the films that land on the Best Picture list has never been wider. It is the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Too many films now seem to be coming from a place of fear. One mistake could end a person’s career so its understandable we’ve arrived at this place.
Art, like life, though, does find a way, like the tiny raptors in Jurassic Park tumbling out into the grass. B.J. Novak’s surprising, insightful dark comedy Vengeance is one such movie. Watching it, I realized just how starved I was for that kind of truth in storytelling.
I was surprised by the writing of Vengeance from the very beginning. It never took me where I thought it was going. It gave me things to think about. I was moved by the ending. I came away loving the characters and appreciate that someone made a movie like this, one that is ultimately about seeing people as people, not as fodder for some kind of battle in the ongoing turf wars online.
Ain’t it just like awards season to not even notice this movie? It premiered at Tribeca in June, made a brief theatrical run, then hit streaming, and is already set for Blu-ray release a week from now. It wasn’t on my radar, that’s for sure. It wasn’t tagged as an “Oscar movie,” that’s why. But that’s probably what is makes it so great. I know that movies like this one or The Watcher or the absolutely brilliant film Spree don’t fit in the “awards genre.” But just because something isn’t an “Oscar movie” doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the best of the year.
Vengeance starts out as a breezy, witty movie about Manhattan hotshots at a party beneath the Brooklyn Bridge bluntly discussing their throwaway disdain for the women they hook up with. The next morning one of the guys, Ben Manalowitz (Novak) finds himself reluctantly hurtled headlong into rural Texas, after the brother of one of those girls phones him with tragic news. Though it does follow a plot, a mystery about a potential murder, the movie is really about this moment in American life. Ben has been pitching a podcast in which he means to explore his belief that we’re not divided by geography — not by red states or blue states — but by time. He feels we don’t really live together in real time anymore because the internet has disrupted our need to connect in the same temporal plane of existence. He’s now compelled to reconnect, whether he likes it or not.
I was preparing myself for noble sanctimony, and it never arrived. This film is full of self-reflection, which is what makes it so watchable. The trailer and clips don’t do it justice. I personally see us divided more by those who live mostly in the real world and those who live mostly virtually or online. I guess that might have to do with time.
As readers of this site know, I have made a conscious effort over the past couple of years to step out of my own bubble to get to know the world of the Right, which I didn’t know before. I am sensitive to the terrible ways — and untruthful ways — they are portrayed in film and television. Stereotypes are not only wrong, but they’re boring. B.J. Novak is smart and observant enough to reach for a more honest approach.
Vengeance is the kind of movie that I could see Roger Ebert discovering on his show, back when he was alive and when he had a weekly show. People would watch it and find out about a great movie called Vengeance. Now, in the age of high-concept filmmaking, a movie has to have some sort of platform, lots of money behind it, and some kind of hook. But this movie doesn’t really have a hook. It’s just really great writing and interesting observations about this moment in our history.
The film only made about $4 million at the box office. It was clearly something that was hard to sell. But in the end, my friends, take it from an old timer: great movies have a way of being discovered and rediscovered as we move through time. This one will be one to look back on years from now and see just how insightful it was about things everyone deep-down feel but few people up-front talk about.
Vengeance is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.