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Fantastic Fest: ‘Random Acts of Violence’ (review)

Produced by Jay Baruchel,
Noah Segal, Randy Manis

Screenplay by Jay Baruchel and Jesse Chabot
Based on Random Acts of Violence
by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Directed by Jay Baruchel
Starring Jesse Williams, Jordana Brewster,
Niamh Wilson, Jay Baruchel

 

Despite being released in 1996, the specter of Scream continues to hang over horror cinema for well over two decades.

The slasher genre, arguably one of the most “tropey” subgenre, has consequently suffered in its wake, struggling to satisfy an audience that is either too hip to its conventions or don’t tolerate some of its more now problematic tendencies, particularly the violence against women.

It’s telling that the most notable entries within the past decade that have managed to garner any traction have largely been meta commentaries, such as The Final Girls. Actor/director Jay Baruchel (This Is the End, She’s Out of My League) now has his own foray into the genre with Random Acts of Violence, a film that seeks to tackle weighty subject matter in the guise of a slasher commentary, but frequently flounders in the execution.

The film centers around Toronto comic creator Todd (Jesse Williams), a superstar in the industry off the success of his long running series “Slasherman”, a riff on a real life (in the movie’s world) series of killings that took place in the 80s.

Nearing the final issue, Todd is suffering severe case of writer’s block and has no idea how to end the story. He decides to go on a road trip for inspiration, along with his girlfriend (Jordana Brewster), friend (Baruchel), and assistant (Nia Roam). However, as they traverse across the country, the killings begin again, now eerily imitating the death’s in Todd’s comics.

Whereas as most meta slasher films seeks to comment on the conventions of horror narratives themselves, Random Acts of Violence is a lot more interested in the underlying subtext of these stories, particularly in the lionization of the killer as myth and the victims as pawns to their rise of stardom. That’s not to say that the film is akin to something like Natural Born Killers, but there’s an interesting nugget of an idea that is touched on, but never properly fleshed out.

There’s a nice dichotomy between Todd’s own writing and that of Brewster’s character’s, an aspiring novelist of sorts who wants to write about the victims of the killings in order to, as she puts it, “give a voice to those who no longer have one”. In offering two conflicting perspectives on how art can interpret real life atrocities, the characters represent two facets of the societal psyche.

However, the subtext is subservient to a narrative that’s rather “stop and go”, quite literally in the sense that it frequently relies on the characters stopping in a location, a murder happens, and then they go on to their next stop. It’s repetitive until the last 20 minutes or so, at which point we finally get some semblance of an explanation for what’s going on. But for the most part, we’re following the characters around while Todd slowly descends into paranoia, though even this is largely represented by him staring off blankly while odd insert sequences of flashbacks are played to us ad nauseum.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t stylish at all or at least formally interesting. There’s a neat color palette that evokes the likes of Creepshow for many of the comic book-esque sequences, and I wouldn’t doubt that the influence of real-life comic creators Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray is largely to thank for this as they were behind the comic the film is based on. Baruchel is competent behind the camera as a still relatively novice director, though his framing for non-violence set pieces is awkward at times, awkwardly shoving characters to the side of the frame with largely empty space next to them, but with no real reason for it.

It could be my fatigue from meta slashers, but Random Acts of Violence largely left me cold, its interesting themes burdened by a story and characters who I felt mostly nothing for. I do hold out hope for Baruchel to make a genuinely great horror film.

After all, would any of us have believed a goofy comedian like Jordan Peele could make something as unsettling and culturally relevant as Get Out? However, I think he’s missed the mark on this outing.

 

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