Jay Baruchel is best known for his performances in various comedies (Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder, This Is the End) and for providing the iconic voice of Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. But the actor has dipped his toes into the waters of writing, producing, and directing as well; his directorial debut being 2017’s Goon: Last of the Enforcers. For his second feature, Random Acts of Violence, Baruchel not only pulls off the impressive feat of all 3 roles yet again (with the help of co-writer Jesse Chabot), but he also stars in the film. It’s a hard left turn for the Canadian artist – the film is an incredibly violent and vicious horror flick, bearing little resemblance to the work audiences might be familiar with from him. Though beneath the blood, guts, and screams lies a fascinating conversation, one that viewers are bound to be engaged in long after the credits roll.
Based on the 2010 graphic novel of the same name by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, Random Acts of Violence is the story of Todd (Jesse Williams), a comic book writer residing in Ontario with his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster). Todd is struggling to come up with an ending to his massively popular comic series, Slasherman, which takes inspiration from a real series of horrific murders and disappearances. The comic is crude and excessively violent – especially towards women – and from what is shown of it, doesn’t appear to offer much substance. But when Todd is confronted about his comic’s content and how it may have the potential to cause real harm, he becomes defensive, snarkily remarking, “All the things going on in the world today and my comic book’s the problem?”
In an attempt to find inspiration for an ending, Todd takes Kathy, his business partner and best friend Ezra (Baruchel), and his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) down to the United States for a signing tour and to visit the area of the real Slasherman’s actual murders. The Canadian perspective is obvious: the United States is framed as a frightening place for an uncomfortable variety of reasons. It’s here that Slasherman fans – driving imposing pickup trucks littered with bumper stickers that many Americans are probably both familiar with and very tired of – line up to get a chance at meeting Todd. The fans are intense, with many dressing up as the titular serial killer and telling Todd that his comic is “their whole life”. The influence that the art (if one chooses to consider it as such) has over the audience is obvious.
As the tour progresses, a series of brutal copycat murders begins, and Todd has to face the reality and consequences of his creation. But is Todd solely the one to blame? Is there actual blood on his hands? Could a piece of art (again, if one can call it that) have the potential to push an already unstable person over the edge? It’s one of the many questions Random Acts of Violence wants to ask – kicking off a fascinating commentary on violent content, the responsibilities of artists and consumers, and questioning the horror and true crime genres as a whole.
The film wears its influences on its sleeve. A slasher movie through and through, it takes clear inspiration from films like John Carpenter’s Halloween, David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac, as well as the gory and practical effects of movies like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Even so, Baruchel plays with the beats and rhythms of the scenes in a way that keeps them from being too predictable, continuously keeping the audience on their toes. When his slightly off-kilter directing style combines with the consciously harsh colors of cinematographer Karim Hussein and the unnerving, synth-heavy score by Wade MacNeil and Andrew Gordon Macpherson, the result is a disorienting gore-fest that should appease any horror fan looking to assuage their appetite for violence.
The violent scenes are purposefully gruesome and hard to watch, but Baruchel isn’t going for pure shock value. Instead, he appears to be aiming for some form of legitimacy to the killings, some way for the senseless bloodshed to mean something beyond grim entertainment. One of the debates at the film’s center manifests in arguments between Todd and Kathy. Kathy is writing about the real Slasherman victims, bringing up interesting points about how people will easily remember the names and stories of deranged murderers before ever knowing the names and stories of their victims. Aren’t they the ones we should care about? “You legitimize violence. You fetishize evil.” Kathy tells her boyfriend after another murder forces the group to face the situation directly.
Random Acts of Violence wants to have its cake and eat it too, raising moral and ethical questions about the very kind of content it appears to be producing. Baruchel and company don’t seem to have any solid answers, which may frustrate some viewers by the film’s end, but the goal is to ignite the discussions rather than offer solutions. Baruchel, mirroring Todd’s dilemma throughout the movie, almost seems at war with his own creation. He’s obviously having a lot of fun with horror, slasher tropes, and imagery – but the deeper themes and ideas take the film to a more meta-level of dialogue.
It’s almost as if the filmmaker is asking himself, “Is what I’m creating just adding to the problem? Is it futile to attempt something that’s both an homage and a critique?” Baruchel, thankfully, goes all in and the result is an admirable, harsh, and fascinating piece of entertainment and an excellent source of debate. Whether the uncomfortable violence and lack of concrete answers works is up to the individual viewer, but Random Acts of Violence will leave anyone who watches mulling over the questions it raises for a good while.