Is ending a story the same as ending a life? Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence seems to think so. Though Baruchel is probably best known for his acting work in Judd Apatow comedies and the How to Train Your Dragon series, he directs, co-writes, produces, and stars in this adaptation of a 2010 graphic novel by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray that is surprisingly dark and disturbing. Though film’s history has been plagued by difficulties, making halting progress since its initial plans in 2011, it seems to have shaken off its curse and hits select screens in Canada and streams in the United States on Shudder.
Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) is a comic book artist who feels chronically misrepresented by critics and missing inspiration. He intends for the next issue of Slasherman, his comic series inspired by a serial killer active in the late ‘80s, to be his last, but finds it impossible to find the proper sendoff for his evil hero. Hopefully, his press tour/road trip from Toronto will spark inspiration — accompanied by his wife Kathy (Jordana Brewster), his hyper-organized assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson), and his best buddy Ezra (Baruchel), a comic store owner. But soon enough, the trip turns terrifying when they are haunted by a series of murders that start to follow Todd’s comics a little too closely…
The basic plot feels like a combination of familiar set-ups: road trip goes wrong, crazed fans take obsession too far, life imitates art to a dangerous degree. But the strong lead performances inject the archetypical roles with energy, and bright color tints and moody lighting add a giallo flair. Despite Baruchel’s comedic background and the comic-book focus, this is by no means a fun romp through campy gore. While there are some hilarious exchanges amongst our quippy protagonists, the murders that ultimately unfold are bloody and brutal, pounding the audience mercilessly with grisly violence. The deaths onscreen and in Todd’s comics are not fun. Fast and loud, yes, but not fun. The slaughters are deeply upsetting, nasty, and nightmarish, with the bloodbaths giving new resonance to the term “graphic” novel. The brutal murders are certainly impressive setpieces, even as they remain not exactly enjoyable to watch.
But are we meant to be enjoying ourselves? Is this entertainment? This is the question the film keeps raising, especially as some characters offer meta-commentary criticizing the thrills we glean from violence. Kathy, while supportive of Todd, is also working on a book all about the Slasherman’s victims — giving a voice to those who no longer have one. That spells plenty of relationship tension and plot complication, allowing the film to introduce some surprisingly complex themes for a slasher story. It begins to interrogate exploiting real-life trauma and making art responsibly, especially as the self-absorbed Todd professes his belief that the Slasherman was creating art of his own by inflicting pain on others. Todd may seem a little clueless at reading the room — but his readers seem to eat up his stories of depravity nonetheless.
While laudable in its ambitions, this is by no means the sharpest or most original take on the fetishization of murder or violence in the media, and it still leaves something to be desired in doing these big ideas their full justice. Save for one tense radio interview where Todd is confronted by a host who knew one of the victims, the film fails to hold Todd fully accountable for the violence he has inspired, glorified, and even encouraged through his comics. We catch only glimpses of his artistic process, in hazy flashes of scribbles and childlike drawings that are juxtaposed by blood-saturated frames. But for Todd and the Slasherman, art is an act of violence, purging the chaos inside the creator’s head — rather than exorcising their traumas and demons, displacing them onto others.
I don’t know how any of these artists manage to see what they’re doing given the constant lack of light — it seems every scene where we see someone drawing is set in a dark and fog-filled room. The whole film seems still a little lost in that darkness, leaving us unable to fully make out what message exactly it is trying to express. But there is something palpable there, something potentially terrifying. Basking in the aftermath of horror, the final line of Todd’s comic serves as the closest thing to the film’s thesis statement: the comic’s final line that “Real art is born of truth. Everything else is a random act of violence.”
While we are left still searching for all the truths buried within this particular piece of art, Baruchel approaches his creation with a purpose. This violence is not random — and while I am relieved when the film ends and the brutality halts, thankful that Todd’s comics can incite no more terror, I look forward to the future entries in Baruchel’s filmography with excitement (and just a little bit of apprehension).