Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams), creator of the “Slasherman” comic book series, embarks upon a road trip from his Toronto home to New York Comic Con, with several planned stops along the way for fan signings and to allow wife Kathy (Jordana Brewster) to gather material for her forthcoming book on the lasting effects of the I-90 murders, on which Slasherman is based.
Along for the ride is Todd’s friend and publisher Ezra (Jay Baruchel) and assistant/aspiring artist Aurora (Niamh Wilson). The trip is not much more than a couple of hundred miles old when events begin to take a turn for the worse as it soon becomes clear than someone is shadowing their every move, leaving in their wake a trail of bloody carnage which appears to have been inspired by the Slasherman story.
You may know director, co-writer and supporting actor Jay Baruchel from his work in far lighter films than this one. This is the second feature he’s helmed, following up the sequel to ice hockey rib tickler Goon with something that is not going to get you laughing in the slightest unless you have a sense of humour that’s beyond twisted.
Todd is wrestling with a problem experienced by many writers, that is creating an ending to the series which has resonance and worth, although Ezra would be happier if Slasherman was never put to bed and continued to provide a revenue stream for them both. Glimpses of a past trauma suggest that Todd is attempting to use his comic creations to serve as some form of catharsis for an injustice he was powerless to prevent.
As an odd form of therapy, it doesn’t seem to be working too well and his relationship with Kathy is becoming increasingly under strain, especially as Todd’s work focuses on a thinly-fictionalised killer and Kathy is intent on giving a voice to the victims of the heinous true crimes. A road trip retracing some of the I-90 killer’s movements is the perfect way to move past all of that, right?
Offering up sequences of genuinely disturbing bloodshed while commenting on the effect on those who consume and create the media portraying it, Random Acts Of Violence wants to have its cake and eat it too. Brewster gets to play the moral centre of the tale, remarking upon the clamour for constant carnage and barely containing her disapproval at a signing event where Todd’s fans seem only slightly less unhinged than the real-life inspiration for his material.
Despite its angle on taking moral responsibility for putting such content out there, the movie doesn’t wag its finger too much at fans of horror because it’s too busy giving the audience what they want in terms of graphic kills. The triple murder which re-ignites the fear of the I-90 Killer’s return is a deliberately paced, suspenseful sequence, culminating in a frenzied explosion of violence which is an effective, not to mention hard to watch, pay off to the steady build of tension of the first act.
This leads to the grisly roadside recreation of one of the most graphic frames from the comic. Of course, Todd has to drive right by the scene of the crime and the tarpaulin covering the corpses has to be lifted by a convenient gust of wind at just the right moment, which allows him to twig that his path and that of the killer are converging at an alarming rate.
Following this, as is customary, Todd receives a phone call from the killer, who divulges what seems to be a classic numerical clue to the murder spree which, as well all know from the genre, is going to refer to a passage from the Bible. Or is the script playing upon our prior knowledge of such a hackneyed device employed by countless other movies, TV shows and books of this type?
For the first two-thirds of Random Acts Of Violence, the odd clunky moment is more than balanced out by an effectively grim atmosphere, an intense lead performance from Williams and bursts of abrupt, cruel butchery. The aftermath of an attack on one particular character really hits home for both the viewer and Todd as he comes to realise that his artistic vision is putting those closest to him in danger.
It’s at this point, when all bets are off, the comic book world is closing in on the real one and the proceedings are beginning to look all the more interesting, that the movie chooses to loosen its grip with a final act that’s both formulaic and melodramatic, throwing in a dash of torture porn and a showdown which, although doubling down on the gory reveals and showing little sentimentality when it comes to the fate of its more prominent players, can’t accompany its gruesome spectacle with the raw, emotional impact it should.
Random Acts Of Violence works best when it’s playing with the tropes of the genre and there’s no doubt that Baruchel can engineer a jump scare as well as racking up a decent amount of suspense but the critical commentary on the very type of tale it’s telling is too heavy-handed to provoke any long-lasting debate. Often, the discussion between Kathy and Todd feels like it’s a series of pro- and anti-censorship bullet points without any progression beyond a surface-level treatment of the argument. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’re unlikely to be swayed by a convincing takedown from the opposition here.
That said, the tone of the film is admirably serious throughout, resisting the temptation to dilute its bleakness with stress-deflating laughs. The kills are quick, grimy and chillingly brutal. The main players are a cut above, Williams especially, but even this fine cast can’t elevate a final fifteen minutes which, ironically, will satiate the gorehounds but will disappoint those looking for something deeper. Its aim to be something much more than just a slasher is commendable but the end product doesn’t quite deliver on its early promise. That said, there’s clearly a notable level of craft on display and the standout moments make it worth taking this road trip.