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New Release Review [Shudder] - RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE

Random Acts of Violence review
The author of a violent comic book is taunted by a serial killer inspired by his work.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jay Baruchel

Starring: Jesse Williams, Jordana Brewster, Niamh Wilson, Jay Baruchel 

Random Acts of Violence poster


Canadian comic Jay Baruchel is the latest actor to turn to the horror genre as director for his sophomore feature Random Acts of Violence. With his second turn behind the camera and his debut in the realm of horror, Baruchel displays a love of and familiarity with the genre, while also questioning its ghoulish appeal. In moments he also demonstrates that he has an eye for staging an effective jump scare. But thanks to the flimsiness of a script that bites off more than it can thematically chew, it ultimately proves little more than a derivative diversion.

In Dario Argento's 1982 giallo Tenebrae, Anthony Franciosa plays an American author of lurid murder-mystery novels who travels to Italy to promote his latest book. While there he becomes caught up in the hunt for a serial killer who is taking inspiration from his work. With Random Acts of Violence, Baruchel takes this premise and gives it a modern geek culture update. His anti-hero, Todd (Jesse Williams), isn't a novelist, but a Toronto based comic book creator, whose ongoing series "Slasherman" has propelled him into stardom in geek circles. It's also gained him some notoriety and criticism, as his work is inspired by "The I-90 Killer", a real life (in the world of the film, that is) serial killer who murdered several young women along the stretch of American highway in the late 1980s and early '90s before seemingly disappearing.

Random Acts of Violence review


Todd grew up in a small town that was home to one of the I-90 Killer's victims, and managed to turn his subsequent fascination with the murders into commercial and artistic success. Now Todd wants to wrap up the series, but he can't come up with a satisfying ending for the final issue. Seeking inspiration, he sets off on a road trip down I-90 accompanied by his secretary (Niamh Wilson), his publisher (Baruchel) and his girlfriend, Kathy (Jordana Brewster), who hopes to interview people along the way for her own true crime investigation of the murders.

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While defending his work from accusations of insensitivity and exploitation on a local radio show, Todd receives a call from a sinister voice that recites a sequence of seemingly random numbers. When a group of youngsters are killed that night and their corpses assembled in a tableau taken directly from an issue of Slasherman, it seems the I-90 Killer has made a belated return, and is taking inspiration from Todd's creation.

Random Acts of Violence review


Random Acts of Violence is filled with nods to cult classics of the horror genre, mixing the premise of Tenebrae with the open road settings of Road Games, Race with the Devil, Joy Ride and The Hitcher. I've always had a love of the sub-genre of Highway Horror, as there's something terrifying about the idea that no matter how fast you drive or how much ground you cover, evil will always appear in your rear-view mirror. As such, I was onboard with Baruchel's film for most of its running time, as while it's not in the same league as any of the movies I just referenced, it does enough to keep us invested in its narrative.

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Working with cinematographer Karim Hussain, Baruchel takes a leaf from George Romero's comic book inspired Creepshow, bathing his film in primary colours and occasionally interjecting animated segments to represent significant pages of Todd's comic. His murder set-pieces are like campfire ambushes in Howard Hawks' westerns, with violence exploding so quickly you barely have time to gasp before the killer has disappeared back into the shadows. In the I-90 Killer, he's created a memorable villain, an imposing hulk clad in a welder's mask and protective apron.

Random Acts of Violence review


On a surface level, Random Acts of Violence has everything in place for an effective piece of grindhouse storytelling. But Baruchel wants his film to be something deeper, an exploration of the responsibility of artists who make a living out of our fascination with violence, and in Todd's case, the exploitation of real life tragedy. Trouble is, Baruchel can't find a way to examine this theme without having his characters literally verbalise it in the clunkiest of fashion. Brewster's Kathy exists solely to stand in for the critics of horror, at one point exploding with rage and blaming Todd for the I-90 Killer's crimes in a speech that comes so out of leftfield it's impossible to take seriously. The fact that Todd has no comeback to her critique suggests that Baruchel's views are aligned with Kathy. If so, he's quite the hypocrite, as he himself has made a movie filled with stylised violence. Kathy is herself exploiting the killings for her true crime book, but the film never holds the phenomenon of true crime - which it could be argued, provides serial killers with the fame they so often crave - accountable in the same way it does the horror genre, whose heroines have likely inspired more women to stand up to men than their villains have inspired men to kill women.

If you can look past Baruchel's shoddy subtext-made-text, Random Acts of Violence offers enough thrills to keep genre fans engrossed. Well, for the first hour at least. Just as things are getting juicy with a tense highway standoff at the hour mark, Baruchel swerves into M Night Shyamalan territory, the final 15 minutes of his brief movie devolving into an unconvincing (thanks to a glaring casting issue) twist that wraps everything up in the flimsiest of bows. 

Random Acts of Violence is on Shudder from August 20th.




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