Jay Baruchel‘s Random Acts of Violence is a horror movie that gets stuck somewhere on the road between a deconstruction of the genre and wanting to immersively sink into its gore. The film is an adaptation of the one-shot comic of the same name (written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti with art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo and Paul Mounts) and I must confess I didn’t know Baruchel and co-writer Jesse Chabot had been hired to pen the adaptation before seeing the movie, so I can’t speak to how faithful it is to its source material.
The story revolves around a road trip hit comic creator Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) takes along with his publisher, Ezra (Baruchel), to promote their comic, Slasherman. Along for the ride are Todd’s girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster) and Ezra’s assistant (Niamh Wilson). The comic book Slasherman continues the exploits of a real life serial killer who once committed murders on the same highway our four characters travel along, and the comic is rooted in the point of view of the unnamed serial killer. The rural area along the road is familiar to Todd, who lived there as a child and has an early connection to the murders — although we don’t discover what that connection is until the end. Very soon into the road trip, it becomes evident that Todd’s comic has prompted the killer to come out of retirement to commit more murders. With the crime scenes based on moments from the comic book, the murderer makes his way directly to Todd and co.
Todd is presented as a realistic character struggling with his successful comic book and trying to produce an ending that will lift it up from its commercial gore. Along the way, he is interrogated over the violence present in the book, sometimes unexpectedly. This especially places strain on his relationship with Kathy, who is simultaneously working on a non-fiction book about the victims of the serial killer. She intends to move attention away from the killer and focus on the victims — to give a voice to those that can no longer speak as she says — and this leads to some tortured arguments over the stuff in Todd’s head, what he puts in his comic, and the nature of their relationship. Not to mention their own personal motivations. A particularly terse scene where Todd is ambushed by a radio host during an interview is quite strong; the radio host was childhood friends with one of the victims and reprimands Todd for exploiting their misery.
All of these ideas are fine and interesting. Unfortunately, they are not well developed. Once the unnamed serial killer begins hunting and killing victims, the film revels in the gore which seems to have leapt out of Todd’s comic. His first victims even happen to be high schoolers and their frenzied attempts to get away as the killer, wearing welding gear and slashing them to death, evoke slasher films which have been parodied numerous times. As the film progresses, it attempts to make you buy into the slasher plot through the use of strong video work, novel images, and above all, frenzied cutting.
You never get over that unsatisfied feeling of not having the earlier threads play out and not having its ethical questions addressed, however. The film tries to pivot and build up the connections in its backstory, but these elements are not memorable. Instead, they feel forced; lacking originality and impact. You’re primed for something that’s more of a deconstruction — the sort of horror film Jordan Peele might do — rather than a Halloween or Friday the 13th. Its attempt to explain the psychopathology of the killer and, by extension, Todd’s reasons for producing his comic (something to do with the murders being a kind of art) are not convincing.
If the film were to develop the topic of violence in comic books, it would come more into its own. I couldn’t help but think of graphic novels I’ve read like My Friend Dahmer (by Derf Backderf), Colville (by Steven Gilbert), and From Hell (by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell) and whether these books exploit the murders and real life victims they are based on. Furthermore, do the books do real violence or stimulate violence simply by existing? Do they take a callous view of the victims’ suffering? I suppose Random Acts of Violence ultimately says the creative act that comes from the knife and that which comes from the brush are linked. One feeds the other and they both perpetuate this cycle of violence, although the ideas aren’t clearly articulated as such. I would also have preferred it if the film had attempted to characterize Todd’s comic book as something that resembled a believable comic book instead of the standard comic-book style graphic presentations we’ve seen in movies like Kill Bill or A-ha’s music video for Take On Me. Comics are fairly ubiquitous in popular culture now, not to mention in bookstores, and there was no way I could buy the generic images and trade dress in the movie as belonging to a hit publication.
I think that some of these failed elements are why many reviewers are giving the film a solid three out of five stars. It’s not a bad movie per se, but it could a much more interesting film if the seeds planted early in the story actually flowered. It’s great to see a film shot in Toronto and neighbouring city Hamilton and there’s something about Baruchel and his projects that’s impossible to dislike. This is still an early film for him as a director and he’s clearly capable of approaching interesting ideas and executing non-standard shots and editing techniques. I hope this is a stepping stone to more worthy and interesting projects.