Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence takes on a pretty interesting topic: Are horror artists inspired by violent acts of the past, or are they unknowingly collaborators in violent acts of the future?
This is an extremely weighty question, and to Baruchel’s credit, he puts a lot of effort into answering it in an 80-minute movie. Whether or not his answer is satisfactory…I’m still on the fence. Bear with me.
The plot of Random Acts of Violence is straightforward. A comic book creator named Todd (played by Jesse Wesley Williams) is promoting his long-running series “Slasherman” during a cross-country signing circuit. His series was notoriously inspired by a real-life serial killer who was never caught, and he’s faced with constant backlash from people who see his work as exploitative and insensitive. As Todd and his friends travel around promoting the comics, a new series of murders begins…and they all seem to be directly inspired by pages from “Slasherman.” As the creator of the comics, how much blood is on Todd’s hands?
I have a few issues with Random Acts of Violence pertaining mainly to stylistic choices. The editing’s choppy, which pulled me out of the movie quite a bit, but I’m unsure whether or not that was Baruchel’s intention. Perhaps he’s a fan of Brechtian theatre and he wanted viewers to feel distanced from the material, forcing us to feel intellectually engaged by it rather than providing us with any sort of entertainment or catharsis. With the exception of a gory display early in the movie, Baruchel rarely gives us time to study the killer’s victims or feel “entertained” by the bloodshed and makeup effects. I know it’s a longshot, but I’m giving him benefit of the doubt.
Another problem I had lies in the first kill sequence, and it may not actually be a problem at all. The scene involves all the familiar tension of a slasher movie: three friends are stranded on the side of the road when their vehicle breaks down during a thunderstorm. Worse yet, their phones don’t work. And then along comes a mysterious van, and the scene quickly becomes creepy when the driver flashes his headlights a few times before getting out of vehicle and standing menacingly in front of his prospective victims. And then, wouldn’t you know it, he kills them all—but that’s where all the tension disappears. Rather than going through the motions of starting with a jump-scare kill and then craftily stalking the others through the rain while they try desperately to escape, he just sort of…does it. Not only that, he’s also incredibly angsty about it and he takes a moment to amp himself up before diving knife-first into the task.
I thought this scene was quirky, but it also felt somewhat empty. The killer’s definitely a threat, but we’re given a glimpse into his humanity right from the get-go. I understand that we’re supposed to see a parallel between the killer’s artistic strain and Todd’s struggle to satisfy fans of “Slasherman” comics, but I wish this parallel would’ve been approached differently.
On the bright side, I saw a few prominent influences in Baruchel’s work. The color palette seemed to be informed by Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, and there’s a scene later in the movie which seemed directly inspired by Walton Goggins’ execution scene in the aforementioned film. Assuming I’m correct, it’s interesting that a movie about the dangers of violence in pop culture would associate itself with such an over-the-top violent predecessor. Regardless, I appreciated these choices.
I also enjoyed the visual representation of fiction and reality overlapping. This is achieved via key moments being shown with comic book art rather than standard storytelling methods, and it’s an interesting way of communicating Todd’s inner turmoil while also playing around with style.
However, even with all the aesthetically pleasing stylization and bold intellectual aspirations, the movie felt preachy. Rather than erring on the side of subtly, Random Acts of Violence hits us with several instances of on-the-nose dialogue.
“You legitimize violence. You fetishize evil,” one character says. Less than a minute later, the same character adds, “You didn’t kill her, but the way I see it, you may as well have.”
Oh, and in another scene, a television personality discusses worldwide violence while the text at the bottom of the screen asks something along the lines of, “Does pop culture cause violence?” In a better movie this might’ve added value to the story, but it just didn’t work for me.
I won’t provide further examples, because it may dissuade you from giving the movie a chance and making up your own mind. Again, maybe Baruchel was aiming for something on a higher level with these on-the-nose dialogue choices, in which case he succeeds in bludgeoning us to death with them in a way that would make Slasherman proud.
Overall, I’d say Random Acts of Violence is worth watching just once. There’s not enough nuance for a rewatch, nor is there enough storytelling prowess to warrant any sort of discussion we didn’t already have in the late ‘90s. The actors—including Baruchel himself—gave wonderful performances, and I’d rather see a movie aim too high and fall short than aim too low and succeed. Horror fans have been bitching for years about seeing the same movies rehashed over and over again; if nothing else, maybe this misfire will shut those folks up for a few more years. 6 out of 10.
Random Acts of Violence is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.