Synopsis – A pair of comic book writers begin to notice scary similarities between the character they created and horrific real-life events.
My Take – On first thought, it is difficult to imagine Jay Baruchel, most well-known for his lead role as the lovable geek in the 2010 romantic comedy, She’s Out of My League, and for lending his voice to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, writing and directing a gory slasher flick, especially considering how his directorial debut, Goon: Last of the Enforcers (2017), seemed to belong more to his comfort zone.
Like most slashers, this one too, right from the opening seems to create an illusion of comfort and then harshly transitions towards horrific sequences, all meant to work in the veins of creating classic shock for its intended audience.
However, for this loose adaption of a one shot 2010 Image Comic by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, Baruchel shows excellent restraint and nuance as a director and co-writer, as he details the consequences of turning a real serial killer into a pop culture phenomenon. On most levels, this is a kind of film we’ve seen before, and done better. The artist whose work seemingly comes to life in horrifying ways is not a new concept by any means; nor is the idea that, viewed through a certain lens, violence can be a form of art.
But what sets it apart is the Meta interjected here about how art and life becomes extra murky when horror is involved. Raising important questions like do violent video games inspire violence? Do horror films inspire formerly sane people to murder? While certain horror films themselves scratch at the surface of such questions, here, director Jay Baruchel seems to have a lot to say on the matter, and while doing also deftly manages to keep us engaged.
The story follows Todd (Jesse Williams), a comic book writer and the creator of Slasherman, a very successful R rated horror series based on the true crimes of the unsolved I-90 Killer murders just south of the border. Now as the series is coming to end, Todd is suffering from a case of writer’s block and is finding it difficult to wind down the final issue.
Hoping that he may catch up with some ideas, Todd embarks on a press tour via road trip across I-90, with his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster), who is researching and interviewing about the victims of the case for her nonfiction, his publisher, Ezra (Jay Baruchel) and his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson), to promote the series until their final stop at a Comic-Con event. However things begin to get complicated when a series of horrific events start following the group, each seeming more and more like the nightmarish scenarios Todd drew up for his graphic novels.
Jay Baruchel‘s film is both a slasher film, and a satire of slasher tropes. It is in conversation about violence, while being violent. It occupies the same space it is criticizing, and then it fills that space with blood. The film wants to make firm stand against the careless ways with which male authors employ violence, specifically against women, in their stories, all under the guise of entertainment. Making it very clear that much of the horror and terror in the film emanates from the supposition that there may be people out there who cannot draw the distinction between the screen, or page, and their lives, which can lead to awfully bloody consequences.
In order to do that he presents the lead protagonist, Todd, as a realistic character who 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.
And in order to tie up up the story’s threads, he diverges from the graphic novel’s narrative to personalize the issue for Todd, as opposed to making an overall statement about it. He doesn’t offer easy answers to the questions he raises, which makes sense because there aren’t any. What he wants to do is get them out in the open, and he does so without condescending to or criticizing those who can enjoy the film for its horrific impact.
Yes, the film sure does get bloody. The killings are brutal and director Baruchel successfully navigates the biggest challenge of this particular material, in the sense, he films the murders so as to emphasize their tragedy, rather than to excite or titillate the audience.
However, while the philosophical questions at the heart of the film are interesting, the script struggles to reconcile some while leaving others frustratingly under-explored. Like Kathy’s book: though she’s telling the stories of the victims, the book is nonetheless still a product to be bought and consumed, so can she truly take the moral high ground? And though you never get over that unsatisfied feeling of not having the earlier threads play out and not having its ethical questions addressed, but when the film tries to pivot and build up the connections in its backstory, they feel forced.
In an attempt to explain the psychopathology of the killer and, by extension, Todd’s reasons for producing his comic it loses some of the originality and impact it was trying to make. Either way, it’s a discomforting, if not entirely successful film, and combined with the stylish lighting and impressive gore, it will hold you attention even while pushing you away.
Performance wise, the four leads, Jordana Brewster, Jesse Williams, Niamh Wilson and Jay Baruchel, are likable and share a strong camaraderie, while Simon Northwood puts in a strong performance as the main antagonist. On the whole, ‘Random Acts of Violence’ is a horrific anti-horror film that is both confrontational and edgy.
Directed – Jay Baruchel
Rated – R
Run Time – 80 minutes