By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jesse Williams, Jordana Brewster and Jay Baruchel
Directed by Jay Baruchel
Written by Jay Baruchel and Jesse Chabot
Early in RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE, comics creator Todd (Jesse Williams) complains about not being taken seriously, saying he wants to give readers a little “medicine with their sugar,” when all they want is the sugar. For those horror fans, and there are likely many, who do appreciate a little medicine (meaning) with their sugar (Karo-syrup blood), RANDOM ACTS is a bracing study of the relationship between pop-culture violence and the real thing.
Coming to select theaters, VOD and digital in Canada tomorrow and premiering on Shudder August 20, the film is based on Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti’s graphic novel of the same name, which debuted 10 years ago. Actor turned writer/director Jay Baruchel and co-scripter Jesse Chabot were first tapped to write the screen adaptation in 2011, and despite the long gestation period, the subject matter has lost none of its relevance. Baruchel also co-stars as Ezra, Todd’s publisher who’s anxious for Todd to finally write the concluding issue of his hit SLASHERMAN series. Inspired by the (fictional) I-90 Murderer, who claimed dozens of victims along his namesake highway, Todd has come up with a bloody successful comic, but is struggling with how to wrap it up in a way that will have some significance. So Ezra suggests a press tour that will take them deep into the heart of Slasherman’s old stamping grounds, and hopefully give Todd the inspiration he needs. They’re joined by Todd’s assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) and his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster), who’s working on a book about Slasherman’s rampage.
The couple’s opposing approaches to the subject–Todd focusing on the killer and his handiwork, while Kathy aims to honor his victims and give them a voice–is at the heart of the debate Baruchel addresses in RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE. The line between exploration and exploitation, and the ease with which it can be blurred, runs through the heart of the film, as do the different ways people use art to process personal horror and trauma. (When Aurora comes across a dead dog during a roadside stop, she sketches it in order to “get it out of my head.”) Then there’s the enduring question of whether violence on the screen or the page inspires it in real life, which confronts Todd and his gang directly as the Slasherman comes out of retirement and begins claiming new victims along the route the quartet are traveling.
Along with a potent meta look at the genre, Baruchel has also crafted a full-blooded horror film with RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE. The killings are brutal and unflinchingly bloody (skin-crawling prosthetic work by Paul Jones), and Baruchel successfully navigates the biggest challenge of this particular material: He films the murders so as to emphasize their tragedy, rather than to excite or titillate the audience. Baruchel also elicits a heightened atmosphere with the vital contribution of cinematographer Karim Hussain, whose colorful lensing finds a visually transfixing middle ground between comics art and gialli.
Midway through the movie, the filmmakers use a simple bit of misdirection to deliver a strong scare that drastically changes the course of the story, and significantly raises the stakes for Todd and his companions. The four leads all create likable if occasionally troubled personalities with strong camaraderie, which is severely tested as Todd is faced with the ramifications of his printed work, which he initially denies. (The Slasherman begins calling him with cryptic coded messages that he first interprets as Bible passages, ignoring their obvious meaning.) As their odyssey comes to its climax and Baruchel ties up the story’s threads, he diverges from Gray and Palmiotti’s narrative to personalize the issue for Todd, as opposed to making an overall statement about it. He doesn’t offer easy answers to the questions he raises in RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE, which makes sense because there aren’t any. What he wants to do is get them out in the open, and he does so without condescending to or criticizing those who can enjoy the movie for its horrific impact.