The writer that B.J. Novak plays in "Vengeance" is very confident. He shouldn't be.
Novak's Ben gets a phone call at the beginning of the movie. A woman he hooked up with has died and her family members, who think the relationship was more than a hookup, want him to travel from Manhattan to rural Texas for the funeral. He reluctantly attends and, after delivering a halfhearted eulogy for someone he barely remembers, realizes he could make some coin off the dead white woman — "the holy grail of podcasts" — because the circumstances of her death are mysterious.
"You came here to make fun of us, didn't you?" asks a Texas record producer (Ashton Kutcher, who's great). His canniness during an interview is one of the first signs that Ben might be in over his head in attempting to figure out if former flame Abi (Minneapolis native Lio Tipton) OD'd at a party in the desert or if she was murdered. Ben's smug condescension keeps taking him in the wrong direction and the "hicks" in Texas keep demonstrating that he's not as smart as he thinks. When, for instance, he makes a vague Chekhov's gun reference to Abi's younger sister, she immediately demonstrates that she knows a lot more about Anton Chekhov than he does.
Novak, who also wrote and directed, makes a bracing, confident debut with this smart and witty neo-noir thriller. Podcasting is a smart frame on which to build the movie because it gives "Vengeance" the mounting tension of a week-by-week show such as "Serial," where the suspense comes from following along as the elements of a puzzle gradually fall into place. As we listen to Ben updating his producer (Issa Rae) on the latest "clues," it's as if we're helping the two of them solve a mystery that's way twistier than either of them imagined.
Novak cleverly plants clues for us mystery fans, including repeated references to Advil and hints about the four-digit code to unlock the dead woman's phone. But the mysteries in "Vengeance" go much deeper than whodunit — if, indeed, anyone dunit. The script asks questions about the nature of truth and the difficulty of trying to understand one another across cultures — since Ben, in his Manhattan bubble, sees Texas as a red state with little nuance or intelligence.
It's not giving anything away to reveal that the Texans are smarter than the New Yorker in "Vengeance." That's most true of the dead woman's plainspoken mother. She's played by J. Smith Cameron, whose Emmy-nominated work on "Succession" may finally get this great actor the movie roles she's long deserved.
Near the end, she sums up "Vengeance" — and, you know, the world — when she tells Ben, "Life is complicated, even around here. If you can believe that."
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: R for language and violence.
Where: Area theaters.