Does art imitate life, or life imitate art? Without already sounding too banal: The debate over the value of censorship, and what influence art holds over our actions remains fluid. When Todd Phillips’ Joker played to festival goers and general audiences, a fear existed with regards to the film inspiring copycat violence. But not much transpired upon the comic book flick’s release, except for a few people dressing up as clowns. At the same time many harangued over Joker, a horror movie premiered at Fantastic Fest 2019 expressing an affirmative answer: “Yes, violent art leads to violent acts.”
Set in Toronto, Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence follows a comic book author by the name of Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams, Grey’s Anatomy). His highly successful R-rated independent comic line: “Slasherman,” is coming to an end, but he doesn’t have an ending. For research, he takes a road trip with his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster, Fast & Furious), his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson), and best friend Ezra (Jay Baruchel) to New York City. But along the lonely highway roads, they discover terror, blood, and gore. Random Acts of Violence explores artistic exploitation, inspiration, and consequence in a confused slasher bereft of a point.
Troubled, Todd routinely remembers—in primary color-drenched flashbacks—a traumatic Christmas memory from his childhood. To cope, he spends his days conjuring up ingenious kills for his comic’s protagonist: a welding-mask wearing brute, based on a real serial killer known as the I-90 murderer. His girlfriend Kathy is similarly inquisitive of the homicidal figure, except she’s interested in the victims. The pair share a nuanced relationship, as Kathy doesn’t approve much of the glorification of violence in his comics, and doesn’t disagree much when others accuse Todd of exploiting the story of murder victims for plot details.
Beyond Todd and Kathy, in his road movie, Baruchel doesn’t delve deeply into the group’s dynamics. Instead, the details are light. An artist, Aurora is usually drawn to gruesome images. For instance, when they stop at a bleak gas station, Kathy catches Aurora sketching the carcass of a dog with barbed wire wrapped around his belly. Ezra is even more undeveloped, merely a tightly wound friend and manager to Todd. The interactions between them—mostly encompassing hackneyed ribbing—gives no room to form any sort of pathos on their behalf. Apathy is the film’s recurring detriment.
During the team’s travels from Toronto to the small town of McBain and then Albany, Todd begins to confront the power of his images through the perspective of his fans. His unsettling experiences include admirers who recreate the triggering images in his comics as fan art, and a disgruntled disc jockey. But when a man begins to randomly call him with numerically coded messages, and then carries out vicious murders with Todd’s comics as inspiration, he comes to regret ever creating Slasherman. In the accumulated death scenes—replete with gallons of blood and echoing screams—the issue of apathy returns. Yes, the title of the films says it all. Yes, apathy emitting from the killer breeds fear in the viewer. But the same disregard in the killer should rarely migrate to viewers. The inherent dread in any horror flick resides in the belief that the next slain villain could be “me.” For those thoughts to creep into one’s head, some pathos must happen. But none occur in Random Acts of Violence.
Worst yet, the kills aren’t even memorable. Instead, bordering on the comical and dopey. Tawdry jump scares also occur amid the inconsequential haranguing by Todd with regards to his impotent creativity and toxic fans. Overtly stylish, canter angles proliferate Baruchel’s picture without much thought toward their intended purpose. Other components such as intercut animated sequences and grimy comic book aesthetics, such as dialogue boxes, fall flat too. Many of the performances are overwrought, reaching for an emotional trauma that’s not well translated from Baruchel and Jesse Chabot’s thin script. The dull narrative mostly does Baruchel’s movie in, to the extent of the final confrontation between Todd and his deranged stalker being perfunctory. There comes a moment in Random Acts of Violence when Kathy explains, “That’s why you can’t come up with an ending to your book… you have nothing to say.” If those words aren’t the gospel.
Now available to stream on Shudder