For most of my adult life (and even for a couple years before then), I found myself defending horror movies as being something that reflected violence (and quite often misogyny) in our society rather than something that caused it. So imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch horror movie enthusiast/actor-turned-writer/director Jay Baruchel’s (This Is the End) feature Random Acts of Violence, which seems to take the stand that artists who depict loathsome and gruesome act of death and destruction should take some responsibility for whatever depraved actions their art inspires. This thesis may seem to go against the grain of scare-movie enthusiasts, who have always said that aggressive people are attracted to aggressive music, movies, and, in the case of this film, comic books, but that it’s much less likely that the art transforms the aggressor.
Still, there is something about Baruchel’s approach to the dilemma of comic book creator Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams), who bases his particularly violent comic Slasherman on a series of real murders along a particular highway near where he grew up. Todd is planning to wrap up the long-running, popular comic, but is having trouble writing the final issue, so he decides to take a road trip to promote the book, ending up at New York Comic Con. Along for the ride are wife Kathy (Jordana Brewster), who is writing a non-fiction book about the actual murders, with an emphasis on the victims (something she feels Todd’s comic does not feature); Todd’s publisher Ezra (Baruchel, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jesse Chabot, based on the 2010 graphic novel by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti); and Todd’s devoted assistant (Niamh Wilson), who also happens to be an artist.
Although the original murders happened years earlier and then stopped, when word gets out around the town where they took place that Todd is visiting and that he’s ending the series, the killer picks up a few of the issues and begins a series of new killings based on images from Todd’s comics. Apparently the real Slasherman would pose his victims in ways that made them look almost like composed works of statuary, and something about the meticulous nature of the work clearly had an impact on Todd—one might even say he was impressed by the craftsmanship and attention to detail.
Throughout the film, Todd has brief flashbacks to his childhood self, living with his single mother, that seem to indicate that he also experienced a trauma as a kid. I’m not entirely sure the big revelation completely works, but it’s certainly different than most slasher films…and also remarkably similar in establishing connections where there don’t need to be. It’s a delicate balance, which Baruchel manages rather skillfully, even if it doesn’t all quite come together in the end.
As the title may imply, Random Acts of Violence foregoes sustained, slow-burn scares for outright, energetic, blood-soaked murder. This sadistic killer is working out some shit, and he’s doing it on the bodies of his victims—it’s admittedly sometimes tough to watch. Baruchel wants to bridge the gap between artist and inspiration, and force Todd to confront the truth that he gained a certain level of success by stealing ideas from a killer. So what we’re looking for at this juncture of Todd’s life and career is any sign of remorse or accountability, neither of which he truly gives us. This doesn’t stop the movie from being gripping, even compelling at times, but it does keep it from being great or worthy of further contemplation after daring to broach some worthy and difficult themes.
The film will stream on AMC’s Shudder beginning August 20.
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