Review: Random Acts of Violence
Jay Baruchel's frequently shocking horror feature is intelligent and powerful
Written by Jonathan Hatfull
“All tortured women and bisections and disembowellings. Who comes up with this stuff?”
Lovers of horror and true crime are used to being asked “Why would you watch this kind of thing?” but the question of creator responsibility, motive and accountability is often somewhat more loaded.
Random Acts of Violence’s protagonist Todd (Jesse Williams) has turned a real-life series of brutal murders into blockbuster blood-spattered comic book Splatterman. As he leaves Toronto to embark on a US press tour/road trip with his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster), business partner Ezra (Jay Baruchel) and assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson), he’s still struggling to come up with that perfect final issue. Does he give his readers the gore-drenched finish they crave, or does he aim for something loftier with something more to say? When they drive past a grotesque crime scene that perfectly recreates a page from Splatterman, he realises that someone doesn’t want this story to end.
Having made his directorial debut with the sequel to ice hockey comedy Goon (he also co-wrote both movies), Baruchel and his co-writer Jesse Chabot have made a sharp pivot with this adaptation of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s one-shot comic. The two Goon films are a big warm heart barely concealed by dick jokes and flying teeth. Random Acts of Violence is a calculated, queasy question mark wrapped up in a Stephen King paperback cover. The idea of a writer’s monster becoming real recalls VHS favourites like The Dark Half and In the Mouth of Madness but there’s no nostalgia here.
Instead, our protagonist is confronted with tough questions and dead bodies. Why make commercial entertainment from tragedy? What does turning a serial killer into a protagonist do to the audience? Who speaks for the dead? Todd is surrounded by a neat triangle of integrity (Kathy, who is writing a book about the same killings but focusing on the victims), commerce (Ezra, who fills a gas station’s book stand with back issues) and artistic impulse (Aurora, who finds the only way to deal with seeing something horrible is to draw it). The hardcore fans are unsettling in their devotion and the US is immediately presented as a hostile, dangerous place to be. These representations are familiar but they are determinedly foregrounded as the film pushes its characters for answers without supplying one.
This is all matched by the brutal but carefully constructed depictions of violence as Baruchel aims for Zodiac; going for the gut without playing to the bloodthirsty crowd. It’s scary, it’s upsetting, and as Ezra pleads with a sheriff to put a crime scene photo away, she tersely replies “No, you’re gonna look.”
When the blood and innards really start pouring as the film reaches its stylised climax, things start to lose focus. Many of the apparent flaws can be answered with “but maybe that’s the point?” but it’s hard to say that this approach is entirely successful. Despite good work from the actors, there’s no room in the 80-minute running time for character development which makes the self-aware finale feel somewhat hollow…but you will be thinking about it afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a broad audience for it, but Random Acts of Violence is a powerful, intelligent and frequently shocking film that forces its viewer into uncomfortable places and it will start some interesting conversations.
Random Acts of Violence is available to watch on Shudder from 20th August.
Director: Jay Baruchel
Screenwriters: Jay Baruchel, Jesse Chabot
Cast: Jesse Williams, Jordana Brewster, Jay Baruchel
Running time: 80 mins