Roughly a decade has already passed since Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World left a uniquely visual mark on American cinema. Quite a few graphic novels have leaped off the page into a sometimes-hyper-accurate film adaption. The latest to follows its example may perhaps be most at home, while at home via Shudder this weekend. Heck, its title alone may be enough to drive the more squeamish viewer away: Random Acts of Violence. Also, appropriate to describe its own concept, menacing yet disastrously disorganized. For a modern-day slasher flick inspired by a popular graphic novel, this is concerning. Especially for a sophomore directorial effort from a former dragon trainer.
Struggling illustrator Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) is eager to launch his latest “Slasherman” comic to an awaiting public. He’s accomplishing this despite overwhelming critical disapproval, the lack of an ending, and the unexpected connection to a true-life serial killer story. Todd, along with his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster), business partner Ezra (director and co-writer Jay Baruchel), and their assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) hope that a summer road trip can help to clear the head. It serves multiple purposes: publicity tour, research excursion, and a sightseeing tour of inspiration. A collision of the three occurs in due time, as it becomes evident Todd’s creation has manifested into a return of the real-life murderer.
Baruchel, along with co-writer Jesse Chabot, is deliberately going for nothing more nor less than pure shock-and-awe horror, at a nostalgic yet extreme level. Hard to imagine this was the same person best known to American audiences as the awkward yet triumphant Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. He’s grown up dramatically since then; his last film as director, the very Canadian Goon 2 can’t compare at all. Here, we’re seeing the darker, more disturbed side of Baruchel, leaving the viewer as unsettled as possible. Even at a brisk 80 minutes, the effect he has is still panic inducing.
From the first few minutes on with a very aggressive opening title sequence to the mild use of very simple colors at any intense scene. To the mere representation of fire, or any bright color as a heroic scapegoat. It’s a nearly blissful treat with all the aesthetic checkmarks crossed off. Baruchel, editor Andrew Gordon Macpherson, and cinematographer Karim Hussain (We Are Still Here) are a confident tag-team in that regard, pumping the intensity more and more until I realize just how less of a film there would be without it.
Random Acts, overall, feels rather dull for a horror movie. That is unfortunate if Baruchel is giving his all to deliver a good story. He’s clearly enjoying himself in front of the camera, serving as the middle ground between Todd and the cat-and-mouse playing slasher. Brewster’s the most enjoyable to watch here, more so the voice of reason. While Williams, best known as one of the steadier set of hands on Grey’s Anatomy, fills the accidental hero role adequately. He is battling his own beliefs while challenging the film’s loose message that you need to shock an audience to sell media. Not the greatest way to approach such a message, complicating itself further as we go along.
To find any resemblance of a coherent plot, that poses a real challenge. The bare minimum is more than present, what we would least expect out of the graphic novel this is based on. Barely anything apart from the imagery translates well to a moving, breathing picture. Had this maybe have stayed within the animated realm, Todd’s very troubling backstory would’ve made more sense. Brewster possesses the most energy to justify a growing development, instead of the generic Velma Dinkley-type we’re left with. Wilson’s perhaps even less essential, despite her delightful pluck.
When this very brief, frustrating exercise ends, it will be impossible not to be left a little empty inside. Baruchel and Chabot should still be very proud of what they’ve accomplished here; I could be among them if there were a more substantial script to work with. Random Acts of Violence is a downright mess I may personally choose not to bother with again. That frustration only burrows further as we see just how little else this film offers, besides style and performance. And yet, it is hard not to see that spark Baruchel carries. Hopefully, we will see more of that soon. No way his next attempt at expressing a purely creative idea won’t be at least a smidgeon more palatable. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Random Acts of Violence is currently streaming on Shudder; film not rated, though it is very dark and intense, mature audiences only; 80 minutes.