A New Yorker writer hits a wall of culture shock at the Texas funeral of an ex hook-up who may have been -- wait for it -- murdered.
If you want to know more, head out to theaters where "Vengeance," spiced with mirth and menace, is anything but predictable.
Before it ends in a bummer of rambling incoherence, "Vengeance" represents a dynamite debut in features for director-writer B.J. Novak, best known as part of the creative team behind "The Office," the sitcom in which he memorably co-starred as sales rep Ryan Howard.
You may also know Novak from his work in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," where he fought the Nazis. Or maybe you respond to his stand-up or his children's books. I cite these credits to indicate that Novak is impossible to classify.
So is "Vengeance," which is all to the good since it's rare to find a new movie that sneaks up on you with such stealth originality.
Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a Brooklyn careerist and toxic male who talks about the disposability of women with his pal John Mayer (yup, the real one).
Though Ben enjoys his job as a Manhattan journalist, he aspires to that 21st-century Holy Grail -- podcasting. His producer, Eloise (a captivating Issa Rae), tells him -- "not every white guy needs a podcast" with just the right notes of "I-dare-you" cunning.
But first, Ben must heed the call of West Texas, where casual lover Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton, seen in flashbacks) -- they hooked up on a dating app -- has overdosed on opioids in an oil field.
Though Ben can barely remember Abby, her family has the idea that Ben was her one and only. And, hey, there might be a podcast in his elitist tangle with these Lone Star gun nuts.
Luckily, the condescending jokes are mostly on Ben as he pokes his digital phone recorder into Abby's world. Her kid brother (Eli Abrams Bickel) truly mourns her loss. And when her older brother Ty (a terrific Boyd Holbrook) theorizes that someone put a hit on sis ("she never touched so much as an Advil"), he's out for Texas vengeance. Ben just wants a buzzier podcast.
Novak can't bring many dimensions to the jerk he is playing, but his keen eye for detail extends to the evocative original score by Finneas O'Connell and the way he shows no fear of stillness in letting the camera study characters in the frame.
Novak's script inspires his actors to raise their game.
Ashton Kutcher, who gave Novak early work on his "Punk'd" series," is all kinds of terrific as Quentin Sellers, a local music producer -- or is he? -- who can articulate and exploit the dangerous implications of America's divide.
And J. Smith Cameron, the darling of "Succession" (listen up, Emmy), is sublime as Abby's mother, a firebrand you don't dare define by her red-state roots.
Novak knows it would be a reductive folly to shrink his movie into a war between the cliches of redneck politics and Ben's liberal narcissism. Not when there's a shared humanity to lay bare.
At its best, the seriously funny and fierce "Vengeance" exposes an America broken by disconnection. Novak digs deep beneath the glib surface of his mystery thriller to find a responsive empathy aching to get out. He's a filmmaker to watch. Get busy.