The film’s exploration of regional tensions effectively erase actual class dynamics—race, gender, religion, and most other major political fault-lines

B.J. Novak’s Vengeance is a fish-out-of-water comedy in which jaded New York podcaster Ben Manalowitz (Novak) travels to Texas to learn about himself and America. It’s a familiar story, and its lessons are familiar, too: More unites us than divides us, don’t be a condescending jerk, don’t treat people as stereotypes.

And yet, the film still treats its characters—especially Ben himself—as stereotypes. Rural people are good, honest, and American; cosmopolitans like Ben are clueless and adrift. At a time when growing authoritarianism and bigotry in the US is built on the disproportionate power of white rural voters, Vengeance positions those voters as the soul, heart, and conscience of America.

The image of a rural heartland threatened by often non-white outsiders seizing illegitimate power is a staple of political discourse, and of Hollywood. It’s not an analysis or a solution to our current mess, it’s part of the cause.

Ben, a writer for the New Yorker, is obsessed with shallow careerism and the pursuit of transient cosmopolitan pleasure. He uses dating apps to hook up with scads of women he barely knows. One of these brief encounters, Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), dies suddenly of an opiate overdose back home in Texas. Her family calls Ben under the impression the two were closer than they actually were. They convince him to fly in for the funeral. There, brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) tells Ben he believes his sister was murdered.

Ben agrees to help investigate, mostly because it’s an opportunity for him to break into podcasting. But what he thought would be a story about hicks and conspiracy theories quickly becomes a chronicle of his own failings.

Like many podcasters, Ben initially casts around for a theme. Ultimately, though, he’s trying to figure out what is wrong with America. Why does Ty leap to the idea that there was some Deep State conspiracy against his sister? Why is our culture awash in conspiracy theories and misinformation?

There’s a lot of verbiage, but the movie settles on interlocking maladies in the hinterlands and the metropole. Rural America is sunk in despair, tedium, and meaninglessness. The patch of Texas Ben visits, hours from Abilene, is bleak and empty; there’s little to do but eat fatty foods and take drugs. At the same time, New York is gripped by a different kind of vacuity, as urban hipsters hyper-focus on Twitter, virtual images, and fame.

The image of a rural heartland threatened by often non-white outsiders seizing illegitimate power is a staple of political discourse, and of Hollywood. It’s not an analysis or a solution to our current mess, it’s part of the cause.

The blame in this scenario is placed almost entirely on the urbanites. Ben is more affluent than the family he stays with. At one point, he yells at them, telling them that their problems with drugs are their own fault. But the film clearly believes that they have little choice; he’s the one with the power and the money. He’s the one using them as fodder for his podcast, the one with the resources, the one who is shaping the narrative. “I am the story,” he finally realizes, “and the story sucks.”

The story does suck, not least because it’s deceptive. Ben says that everyone in Brooklyn is wealthy. The movie, apparently, believes him, even though this is complete nonsense. Nearly 1 in 4 people in Brooklyn live in poverty. That’s a big part of why working class neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens suffered devastating, terrifying death rates during the initial coronavirus surge.

Similarly, the film assumes that people in Texas are poor, though, of course, that is not uniformly true either. There are billionaires living in Abilene. Local elites have a lot more to do with an exploitive oil economy than New York podcasters. The fun regional tensions effectively erase the city’s actual class dynamics. They also erase race, gender, religion, and most other major fault-lines in our politics.

For that matter, they erase the regional dynamics whereby rural white voters have hugely disproportionate power in the electoral college and Senate. The geographical advantage of dominating vast empty spaces is why the Supreme Court is stacked with far-right Christian conservatives who can impose incredibly unpopular policies—like draconian abortion restrictions—on the nation as a whole.

The film constantly reprimands Ben for his superior attitude toward rural white people. He assumes, inaccurately, that one of Abilene’s sisters hasn’t read Chekhov. He dismisses Abilene’s music and then feels like a fool when he finally listens to her perform.

You’d think the Texans in turn might have something to learn from him. But they don’t seem to. Ty mentions that Ben looks like the people in Schindler’s List, but it’s treated as a one-off joke. The movie (even though it’s directed and written by a Jewish man) doesn’t seem to realize that the portrayal of Ben as a rootless cosmopolitan who doesn’t understand family, connection, or love ties directly into longstanding antisemitic stereotypes about the Jewish diaspora.

There’s no evidence of Christian nationalism and no MAGA hats in Vengeance’s Texas. A lone Confederate flag is, once again, treated as a punch line, not an actual problem. No one makes veiled racialized references to crime in New York. No one talks about abortion. Ben’s censorious attitude toward drug use is reprimanded. But somehow, no one in conservative Texas shares his conservative prejudice.

These blind spots aren’t surprising. Racist assumptions and nationalist boilerplate have been common in Hollywood. Birth of a Nation infamously portrayed the KKK as brave fighters for organic American values. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the nightmare vision of Bedford Falls involves the town becoming home to a jazz club and iniquitous nightlife; it’s a victim of creeping urbanization. Westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales glamorize ex-Confederate soldiers.

The fun regional tensions effectively erase the city’s actual class dynamics. They also erase race, gender, religion, and most other major fault-lines in our politics.

Supposedly we’re more progressive today. But in the mega-successful television hit Stranger Things it’s still Hawkins, Indiana—not Chicago, IL—which serves as the stand in for a virtuous America under assault. And real-life journalists remain obsessed with interviewing Trump voters in diners. Our national mythmaking has told us for generations that rural white people are the demographic that embodies working-class virtue and the spirit of Americana. In contrast, Jews like Ben, Black people like his podcast editor Eloise (Issa Rae), queer people who don’t exist in this movie—those people are all elite fakes.

The film underlines the moral superiority of red America in its final twist. (Spoilers here if you care about that sort of thing.)

At the end of the film, Ben abandons his former pacifism and wimpiness. He dresses up as a cowboy, hat and boots and gun and all, and goes to confront Quentin Sellers (Ashton Kutcher), a music producer who turns out to be the villain of the movie. Ben gets Quentin’s confession on tape, but Quentin just laughs in response. In the cosmopolitan podcast economy, there is no real truth or morality, he says. Anti-heroes are celebrated, everyone has a take, so nothing means anything. Quentin expects to appear on panels with Ben in the near future.

Faced with the bankruptcy of his own social milieu, Ben embraces the alternative: He shoots Quentin in cold blood. This is treated as a sign of Ben’s moral awakening; he faces no consequences, legal or psychological. The rural white Christians have taught him to murder, and he is better for it.

Vengeance starts out as a jokey culture clash and ends with its disconnected Jewish protagonist finding meaning through soil and, literally, blood. B.J. Novak appears to believe that Ben’s options are atomized individualism or the brotherhood of the gun. I have to say if those are the only choices on offer, I’d prefer more podcasts and less fascism.