What to Watch Verdict
'Random Acts Of Violence' is aggressive, and in-your-face when it comes to visual depictions of criminal mimicry, but whiffs when trying to provide supporting commentary.
🔪Effects are gory spectacles.
🔪Only 80ish minutes.
🔪All sizzle, no steak.
🔪Lacks a finishing blow.
Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts Of Violence is titled to make a statement. It’s an adaptation of an Image Comics series (created by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti) about how violent media exists at a price. As a horror fan, it’s familiar territory. Relatives often question my grotesque, slasher-sick watching habits, and how said immorality might warp anyone's perception of reality (which, no, because they’re movies). That said, we’ve all heard stories of real-life killers who were “inspired” by “reckless” media and propaganda that claims violent video games or cinema desensitize societal masses.
There are countless angles for a commentary like Random Acts Of Violence to approach. Still, in the end, Baruchel’s sophomore release becomes the exact type of senseless expression of mortuary exploitation that it attempts to satirize. It’s randomly enacted violence with the most shortsighted message of “isn’t this all complicated?” No development, no answers, just bloodlust for the sake of pushing boundaries.
Jesse Williams stars as Todd, the creator of a successful comic franchise titled “Slasherman.” Todd’s inspiration is an actual serial murderer dubbed the “I-90 Killer." With his final issue looming, and writer’s block in full-force, Torontonian Todd plans a road trip down I-90 en route to a New York City comic-con. Wife and author Kathy (Jordana Brewster), business investor Ezra (Jay Baruchel), plus intern Aurora (Niamh Wilson) all join. What Todd hopes to reveal is an epic ending to Slasherman’s story, but instead, the group discovers that life imitates art in the most unfortunate ways.
As an added layer of complexity, Kate’s passion project is a memoir that highlights the victims of the I-90 massacre. Random Acts Of Violence is quick to chastise Todd for profiting off trauma, since, from an outsider’s perspective, “Slasherman” and the success it garners is at the expense of atrocities now being overshadowed. It’s a common critique of true crime podcasts, which gain notoriety based on listeners’ obsessions while those who’ve lived each episode’s nightmare now must deal with another wave of popularity. Instead of remembering those lives lost in the process, mass slaughterers become the protagonists. Victim names are an afterthought, grisly details now juicy tidbits made public.
It’s with this conundrum in mind that Todd becomes a parody of himself as an artistic creator. He refers to Slasherman as a “hero,” claiming it’s just a narrative term, while demanding he bears no responsibility for what others do in Slasherman’s honor. Todd does not view each illustrated panel of Hannibal-inspired statues, Slasherman’s post-mortem masterpieces, as anything more than mindless entertainment. Where some argue Todd’s giving a voice to the bastards, a motivation to share their life’s work (via death), Todd fights against the ethical problem by saying those who are predisposed to kill were going to do so anyway. It’s a valid retort to an even more valid critique.
Alas, Random Acts Of Violence is not equipped to engage in the conversation it so desperately desires to spark.
As Todd’s working vacation rambles down the interstate, Slasherman becomes a reality. Todd receives blocked calls from an unknown voice babbling random numbers, bodies start piling up, and demises all replicate the picturesque deaths inside Todd’s issues. The “Terrible Triptych,” for example, which stitches three human corpses together in a way that resembles a shrub with no leaves. There’s a tremendous opportunity to dive into the real-life Slasherman’s newest spree, how it ties into Todd’s traumatic past, and the complicated relationship between it all but that ambition is non-existent in any scene. We’re subjected to, well, random acts of violence at the expense of ponderous intentions. Then the film ends before any revelation can reach forward or address appropriate horrors.
It’s exquisite violence, mind you. I’m not sure how that sentence reads given my arguments, but the translation is simple: practical effects are a showcase of disgust. What it all means might be underwhelming, but the fruits of Slasherman’s brutality are gutting and symbolic. Be it gunshot wounds that remove half a character’s head, hotel decapitations, or something as simple as intestines hanging on a Christmas tree like garland. What Random Acts Of Violence does right is blend artistic intent across mediums, between Slasherman’s in-the-flesh mutilation and Todd’s colorful on-paper drawings of once-fictional ideas. The failure here is in its third act when juxtaposition and thematic comparisons are forgotten during yet another, sigh, random act of...you get the picture.
Random Acts Of Violence wants to ignite discourse, speak loudly, and leave your jaw on the floor. It boasts the cast to do so, between Jesse Williams’ dead-blank stare, Jay Baruchel’s nervy promoter, and Jordana Brewster’s humanitarian intentions. What it lacks is the thesis behind Saw-level imagery to make numbing violence anything more than another shock to the system. Todd’s personal odyssey reveals nothing deeper about the complications of violence in media than we already know, and it’s a disappointingly one-note result. Bloodshed for the sake of controversy, with the edge and sharpness of a butter knife.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.