BJ Novak’s ‘Revenge’ Explores a Texas Mindset

Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw and BJ Novak as Ben Manalowitz in “Vengeance,” written and directed by BJ Novak.

Photo: Patti Perret/Focus Features/Courtesy Patti Perret/Focus F

What’s up with Whataburger?

This is one of the big questions posed by Ben Manalowitz, the New York podcaster played by BJ Novak in his new black comedy “Vengeance” (theatrical release Friday). Ben is one of those guys whose experience in Texas is limited to a panel he once appeared on at SXSW. Now he’s deep in West Texas (played by New Mexico, which has better tax incentives for filmmakers), doing a podcast about how a woman he briefly dated, Abilene Shaw, has ended up dying of a drug overdose.

There’s a lot Ben doesn’t understand about Texas, even though he plans to make a big journalistic statement about the state. For example, what is the bigoted devotion of Texans to this nondescript regional fast food chain? When he asks the Abilene family, who have generously welcomed him into their home, his brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook) explains: “Asking why you like Whataburger is like asking why you like Christmas, or a summer night, or your dog. .” In other words, you like it because you like it, and if you don’t get it, then bad luck.

BJ Novak as Ben Manalowitz and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in “Vengeance.”

Photo: Patti Perret/Focus Features/Patti Perret/Focus Features

“Revenge” is the rare movie that’s smart about both the myths Texans tell each other and the misconceptions and ignorance outsiders carry with them. The fact that one of these strangers, Novak, born and raised in Boston, wrote and directed the film, gives it a critical distance that allows for humor and truth.

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Rated R: coarse language, brief violence

Duration: 94 minutes

Where: Opens July 29 in theaters

“I really wanted to do Texas well,” Novak said in a Zoom interview from Austin, where he was promoting the film. “And quite simply, I didn’t want my ass kicked when I came to visit here.”

“Houston is another country”

As he traveled the state before writing the screenplay, he was reminded that there wasn’t just one Texas. “Texas looks like a big, scary, intimidating place for an outsider,” Novak said.

In the movie, when Ty coldly calls Ben to invite him to the funeral, Ben tries to figure out where the family lives. Are they near Dallas? “Dallas is not Texas.” Houston? “Houston is another country.”

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Ben’s frames of reference are the state’s major Red Sea Blue Cities. Finally, Ty gets precise. “Abilene is about three hours from Dallas. And we’re about five hours from Abilene.

Ben wants to report on the mythology of Texas, not the specific people who live there. Thing is, he eventually finds both and often makes a fool of himself in the process. When he falsely says Texas prevailed at the Alamo, the family lets him know that he tipped a holy cow. When he asks why no one called 911 when Abilene overdosed, he is flatly told that Texans don’t call 911. “Vengeance” features a collision of Texas exceptionalism and coastal elitism, both rooted in reality.

Actor Issa Rae and director/writer/actor BJ Novak on the set of ‘Vengeance’.

Photo: Patti Perret/Focus Features/Courtesy Patti Perret/Focus F

“There is no longer a state in the country that embraces old debunked myths the way Texas does,” says Temple native Bryan Burrough, co-author of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American. Myth”. “You don’t see Alaskans running around gold rush statues. I don’t know any Floridians or Iowans or Ohioans who do that. We have a tradition of Texas exceptionalism in this state. Maybe no one outside of Texas understands that we have it, but that doesn’t matter. It is written. It’s rooted in a chauvinism that dates back to the 1830s and 1840s, when Texans came to believe, with more than one small reason, that they were special.

Burrough points out that Texas is the only state to not only have its own independence war and become its own independent nation, but also to defeat a foreign nation, Mexico, in a self-contained war. And with this formative pride comes a cloud of reaction. “Texas is stereotyped because of the endemic idiocy of its political classes,” Burrough says. “But what surprises people is how down on the ground, on the streets of Houston, Brownsville and Fort Worth, people are not only incredibly nice, but also tolerant.”

‘Y’all’ as cultural appropriation

Ben sees her podcast as a way to explore the conspiratorial thought process that could lead Abilene’s family to think she was murdered (the podcast is called “Dead White Girl”). At one point, he goes on a rant against anti-vaxxers and flat earth theorists. But he is also smitten by the kindness of the family, which causes him to re-examine some of his own beliefs. He is forced to see his hosts as human beings.

“I had this character that I knew I wanted to both poke fun at and redeem,” Novak says. “Some sort of budding New York media guy who gets sucked into something that’s out of his comfort zone and kind of helps him grow. I looked at a map and thought, where should I take this guy?Texas was right in the middle of the map staring at me, and it became obvious.

“Revenge” may also seem obvious, but it’s anything but. It’s not a matter of laughing at morons; if there’s a fool here, it’s Ben, who thinks he knows it all. When he derisively addresses the Shaw family as “all of you,” he hears from his eldest daughter Paris (Isabella Amara): “You’re all cultural appropriation.”

Clint Obenchain as Crawl, BJ Novak as Ben Manalowitz, and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in “Vengeance.”

Photo: Patti Perret/Focus Features/Courtesy Patti Perret/Focus F

It’s a fun line, partly because it’s true — if you grew up in the Northeast, you probably don’t say “y’all” much — but also because it’s unexpected. We don’t expect the words “cultural appropriation” to come out of Paris’s mouth (she also seems to know Anton Chekhov’s plays), and that’s up to us.

“Vengeance” walks to the edge of stereotypes, then pulls them out from under our (and Ben’s) feet. He shows us a part of Texas that exists in the minds of foreigners and of Texas that exists in the minds of Texans, before reminding us that people are not a state. Nor are they a voting model. They are individuals. They are families. They are complicated. We easily lose sight of these facts. Sometimes it takes an unlikely emissary to remind us.

Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer.

  • Chris Vognar

    Chris Vognar is a reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

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