Random Acts of Violence: Ambitious but Flawed Horror Is Catnip for Gorehounds (Review)
Random Acts of Violence is a flawed but worthy horror film that attempts to reckon with how artists should weigh audiences’ reaction to their work.
One of the greatest strengths of the horror genre is that most of its movies are really quite cheap to manufacture. Those low budgets allow creative sorts to be granted immense leeway to make whatever interests them, compared to other genres. Production companies like Blumhouse have made an awful lot of money by continually producing low budget films – some will succeed and some will fail financially, but the risk margin is so low on a movie with a budget of $10m or less. That brings us to low budget horror flick Random Acts of Violence.
Jay Baruchel’s second film tells the story of a comic book artist who attempts to confront the writer’s block preventing him from ending his long running slasher series by traveling through the area once frequented by the real killer who inspired his fictional character, Slasherman. The writer, played by Jesse Williams (The Cabin in the Woods), has seen his fair share of controversy for glorifying the murders in his stories. Baruchel is clearly interested in engaging with the idea of what responsibility an artist has for what consequences his art brings upon the world. It’s been a frequent theme in film over the last few years, which is not surprising, considering the turbulent state of truth and fiction in the world today. It is the sort of heady theme that I cannot imagine Baruchel ever would have been given the freedom (and budget) to make as a conventional drama, but low budget horror gives him the freedom to dive in as he sees fit.
Baruchel has delved into this thematic framework through the lens of a classic slasher flick. As our characters continue upon their road trip, it soon becomes clear that someone has begun recreating famous murders scenes from the comic book series. Inevitably, that killer soon turns his gaze to our heroes. The premise of a road trip keeps our lead characters stuck in a car discussing their work and the tensions creative blockages can create in relationships. It’s a smart, effective way to build audience empathy in a relatively short time.
The performances are largely adequate. Jesse Williams does not quite seem to have the range to properly convey a tortured artist. He’s engaged with the material, but I found much of his inscrutability to be less purposeful and more reflective of the limit of his skill set. Jordana Brewster (The Fast and the Furious) lends some scream queen bona fides to the proceedings and, mercifully, gets to do more than play the typical genre nagging girlfriend. Baruchel himself (She’s Out of My League) and Niamh Wilson (the Saw series) round out the cast and both provide more than adequate supporting work in relatively modest roles.
Pleasantly, the usual archetypical horror victim characters are skipped over in favor of random victims Baruchel has dispatched with energetic glee. One such scene sees a car of teens pull over in the rain with a flat tire only. As the rain pours thunderously, a dark van pulls up and a man gets out. Eventually he puts on a mask and paces outside his vehicle. It’s tense, but just ridiculous enough that, when the killing starts, there remains a loving wink and a nod to the genre faithful. The little brutal vignettes make for effective gore hound catnip, without undercutting the efforts to get the audience to engage with the themes Baruchel endeavors to explore. And it ratchets the tension, so the threat feels compelling when the real life Slasherman begins to focus on our heroes.
I do want to make note of the gory makeup work on display here. The effects are often quite impressive, despite an extremely modest budget, and the gory creations crafted here would not have been out of place on Hannibal. The practical gore work showcases some warped ingenuity and benefits Random Acts of Violence ambiance immensely. In fact, ambiance is probably Baruchel’s greatest skill as a director. The film effectively juggles dread, humor, and headier themes without showing too many seams. I’m not sure Baruchel really sticks the thematic landing here – the ending is overwhelmingly meta and threatens to topple the house of cards the film has built – but I do look forward to seeing what genre work he does in the future.
Random Acts of Violence is streaming exclusively in the UK/IRELAND/US on AMC’s Shudder.
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