Shudder UK film review: Random Acts of Violence
An intense, haunted Jesse Williams8
Disorienting multimedia form8
Anton Bitel | On 20, Aug 2020
Director: Jay Baruchel
Cast: Jesse Williams, Jordana Brewster, Jay Baruchel, Simon Northwood, Niamh Wilson, Isaiah Rockcliffe
Watch Random Acts of Violence online in the UK: Shudder UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Google Play
Random Acts of Violence begins, like so many psychothrillers before it, with an impressionistic primal scene: a front door decorated with a Christmas wreath, and inside a young boy (Isaiah Rockcliffe), seated and staring with blood on his face, while a woman declares in voiceover: “There can be no beginning without an end.”
The scene then blurs in its representation, shifting from this domestic location to more murders in a different place, and from live-action film to minimally animated comic book panels (complete with text captions). The sequence ends with this line: “Real art is born of truth – everything else is masturbation.” We see those last four words on a type-written comic book script which Kathy Walkley (Jordana Brewster) is holding and reading aloud – while, on the script itself, we can see that the words are expressly assigned to “Kathy caption”, as though she and her reading were somehow a part of the script itself. The effect is paradoxical and disorienting, as the boundaries between reality and fiction, and between cartoon script and movie screenplay, seem to overlap, making it impossible to tell where the one has its beginning and the other its end.
Kathy’s husband Todd (Jesse Williams) is the writer of “number one R-rated comic” Slasherman, based on the real, unsolved exploits of a truly vicious serial murderer dubbed “the I-90 killer” whose spree took place back in the late 1980s and early 90s. Working on the last ever issue of the series, Todd is struggling to find a truly meaningful way to resolve a text that always aligned its readers with the villain – and so he sets out on a road trip from Toronto to the United States and the scenes of the I-90 killer’s crimes, in search of inspiration and an ending. Three others are along for the ride: Kathy, who is working on a non-fiction book about these same crimes and, unlike Todd’s comic, focuses on the victims: Todd’s assistant, Aurora (Niamh Wilson), a wannabe illustrator who compulsively sketches whatever traumatises her in order to “draw this shit out”; and Todd’s publisher, Ezra (director and co-writer Jay Baruchel), who just wants to sell comics.
As these three artists and their money man go on a road trip through a historic killing ground, Todd finds himself haunted. It is not just the constant vivid flashes to the perspective of the young boy who survived the I-90 killer’s first attack, or Todd’s increasingly horrified glimpse into the real, abiding trauma that the killer has left in his wake, or even his growing awareness of a readership that might identify a little too closely with the comics’ predatory protagonist. For, much as Todd’s writing were inspired by real events, there is now, out on the interstate, someone who has been inspired in turn by Todd’s comics, and who is now recreating in real life some of Slasherman’s more grisly tableaux of terror. As this killer (Simon Northwood) circles ever closer, reaching out to the comic book storyteller with whom he has a peculiar bond, Todd is about to be confronted by that strange feedback loop between truth and art.
The viewer is confronted too. While Random Acts of Violence offers all the conventional entertainments of a slasher, it frames them in a manner that flirts with the painful realities behind their fictions, while constantly interrogating the ethics of its own creation and reception. “It’s all tortured women and bisections and disembowelling,” as a policewoman says of Todd’s comics (although she could equally be talking about the movie).
Baruchel’s film asks again and again what might motivate someone willingly to identify with a killer, and what such identification might say about their own psychological makeup. These are obviously reflexive questions, as much about filmmakers and viewers who traffic in extreme violence as about the different characters. Like Todd – indeed, aided by his depiction in Todd’s comics – the killer in his welding mask sees himself as an artist, and wishes his work to be immortalised, whereas Todd just longs for a way to end this horror once and for all.
Joining the ranks of Rob Reiner’s Misery, , John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness, David Koep’s Secret Window, Maxime Alexandre’s Christopher Roth and Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt, Baruchel’s feature shows a writer trying to work through the unimaginable, the ineffable and the harrowingly unconscionable, and losing himself in his own fiction. Ultimately this macabre meta-slasher is concerned with different types of identification, priming us to solve not just whodunnit (or even more importantly, whowroteit), but what precisely governs the strong mutual connection between this callous killer and his cartoon chronicler. The answer, at once obvious and elusive, casts a dark light on the cathartic role of art as a medium for expressing true, inescapable horror.
Random Acts of Violence is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.