For his second stint in the director’s chair, Canadian filmmaker Jay Baruchel has adapted the graphic novel Random Acts of Violence. Having just premiered on Shudder, the film is an unsettlingly violent and gruesome piece of horror that takes obvious inspiration from the likes of John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and even David Fincher. But it also raises a plethora of moral and ethical questions that put the very nature of the gory genre in perspective and what, if any, responsibility artists have. Baruchel pulls the extraordinary feat of directing, producing, and acting in his film, which isn’t all too uncommon in the industry, but is worth recognition considering how excellent the final result is.
We had the opportunity to participate in a virtual roundtable with Jay Baruchel! We talk about how a filmmaker goes about framing violent content and how the Canadian perspective of the United States peaks through his film. Mild spoilers for Random Acts of Violence follow.
I like how right before the title sequence we get this shot of an Ontario license plate and then as soon as it’s over, we go straight to a New York license plate and the mood shifts immediately into unpleasantness.
JB: Picked up on that, did you? (laughs)
From a Canadian perspective, is there a fear of the United States as a place, and has that been amplified because of the country’s response to Covid-19?
JB: Yes, there’s definitely a fear of the States. Bowie put it perfectly when he said “I’m afraid of Americans.” And that’s just the God’s honest truth. There’s a lens through which America is filtered. I feel obligated to say that some of the people I love the most in the world, including my sister and my niece and a lot of my best friends – I’ve got a lot of real deep connections into that country. But yeah, it’s scary. It’s a scary f*cking place. At least that’s sort of how it comes across.
When you grow up watching the news and you kind of go down there knowing, “Yeah, there’s just a lot more guns per capita than we have up here.” The response to Covid has done nothing to cure the phobia that I might have. I basically was trying to communicate, as best I could, the sensation one feels when one drives from up here down to the States. The minute that you cross that physical border – a border which is completely arbitrary, right? It’s not a natural border at all, it’s a completely invented one. And yet, I feel a weight once I cross it. I have to keep my guard up a bit more. The shoulders and elbows feel a bit sharper. There is an increased potential for harm, is how it feels. Whether or not that is actually the case, and statistically I don’t know, but you’re keenly aware that you’re not home. That’s the best way I can put it.
I was discussing the moral conflict in the movie with my wife after watching this, and we were talking about slasher films and true crime documentaries. She said that to her, it really depends on the framing. That’s the most important part when telling those stories. You’ve talked about the violent scenes in this movie and how they’re supposed to be unpleasant and hard to watch. From a directing standpoint, how do you go about putting together those scenes in a way that they’ll come across as intended?
JB: Thank you, I’m so happy I get to talk about that because it’s one of the things that I’m real proud of – we worked really hard to do that. Number one, it’s about doing our best to remove any sense of fun from those scenes whatsoever. The movie’s tongue should be nowhere near its cheek. There are some movies that have gotten that kind of violence aesthetic right. Pretty much any Scorsese flick, even the most f*cking violent ones, it’s all anatomically correct.
It’s all sh*t that is used in a specific way to communicate something. It’s what Fincher did in Zodiac, it’s what Gaspar Noé did in Irréversible. This is a sort of violence verasimilitude, you know, trying our best to make sh*t happen the way it would happen in real life. That’s the kind of technical way in. You also want to bury the choreography and the sequencing of it as best you can. Because if you’ve ever seen a car chase in a movie and then you watch another movie and there’s a car chase, you can reasonably assume “Okay, this is probably four to seven minutes of my life”. It’s the same when a killer is in a house. “This is about four to seven minutes of my life, so if I can just suffer this four to seven minutes, I can get through it.” So then that sacrifices something! That is a terror that’s left on the table, and that’s a control I don’t want my audience afforded.
So the idea is to bury the beats, to bury the sequencing of it, to bury the choreography – so that the audience won’t know where it’s going to go and can’t have that ticking clock that tells them “If I can just get through this for three more minutes I’m okay.” It was all an effort to create in the audience what I have felt when I’ve been out and about and a bar fight has happened, or a car wreck has happened, and somebody f*cking eats it hard. There’s this kind of music to the world that we all agree to as participants in the social contract. We pay our taxes, we queue up in a line, I’ll hold this door open, I’ll let this guy through ahead of me in traffic, whatever it is. There’s a sort of rhythm that comes from all of us agreeing to play by the rules. Then a bar fight or a car wreck happens and that music is robbed from us and we can’t hear the music that this new thing is operating at. It’s operating at an improvised meter that we can’t really follow. Then you’re in the territory of like, a rabid animal. So I wanted to take as much control and fun out of the audience’s hands as possible and just make them see – as close as I could – yeah, this is kind of what it might look like and it’s probably f*cking godawful.