Having bounced around the festival circuit since appearing at Fantastic Fest in 2019, Random Acts of Violence finds a larger audience on August 20, 2020 thanks to Shudder. The film sounds like it does what it says on the tin, but what is it really about?
It is directed by Jay Baruchel (How to Train Your Dragon 2010, This Is the End 2013), who also wrote the screenplay with Jesse Chabot (Goon 2011), based off of the Images Comics one-shot by Justin Gray (Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe 2008) and Jimmy Palmiotti (Harley Quinn series). It tells the story of a comic book creator called Todd (Jesse Williams: Greys Anatomy series, The Cabin in the Woods 2011) going on a road trip from Toronto to the New York Comic Con with his wife Kathy (Jordana Brewster: The Fast and the Furious 2001, American Crime Story 2016), his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson: Saw III 2006, Maps to the Stars 2014), and his best friend Ezra (Baruchel).
It sounds simple enough, until people start being killed around them. Strangers, passers-by, and Todd’s friends and family become targets for the mysterious killer on their trail. Weirder still, the deaths are remarkably similar to those in Todd’s ‘Slasherman’ comic series. Is it just a crazed fan emulating his character or is there more to it than that? And what can Todd do to stop it?
The intro is a mix of live-action and CGI to emulate a comic book. It has dialogue boxes matching the narration and everything. That said, it uses 3D models instead of 2D animation, meaning it looks more like a cel-shaded videogame than a comic – kind of like No More Heroes or Killer 7. Those are pretty popular, dark adventures into violence too, so it is not a bad match or comparison. Then again, those games are 11 and 16 years old, respectively.
How about the rest of the film? Well, the lighting is rather good, especially during the night scenes or in dark locations where they get lit up by particular colors (golden yellows, grim greens, etc.). Combined with the thrumming synth soundtrack, the film feels like it is going for a style akin to something by Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson 2008, The Neon Demon 2016). There are even a few moody angles in there that aid the building tension.
It is an interesting subject, and one that has cropped up in various places. Like people debating the ending to 2019’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the Elisa Lam inspirations in the notorious YIIK role-playing game, or- perhaps most apt- the popularity of the outcast vigilante Rorschach in 1986’s Watchmen comic. It makes for a good discussion, and it could make for a good film in the right hands – except in this film’s case, the hands are made of ham.
The film does not have much to say about violent media content and the morality around it, but it says what little it has loudly and often, swinging it like a sledgehammer towards the audience. Todd used real-life (within the film) killings to make lurid comic books. Did he not have a bigger picture behind the violence? Did he not think of the victims? They were people too. In fact, one group of people get killed and arranged in a ‘Triptych’- revealed to Todd and co. by some bungling cops. Not exactly the most respectful way to show murder victims either.
It does try to appear deeper than it is with more of those Gamecube visuals and some Gregorian chants on the soundtrack. The killer even quotes Bible verses! But there is little nuance to be had. It is a shame, as the acting is fairly solid too. Though what brings it down are the numerous argument scenes, where the fights often devolve into people just shouting over each other. It is realistic, given that is how most arguments turn out, but it does not make for good viewing or a good way to tell a story and get its points across.
Ultimately, Random Acts of Violence offers a promising subject and then drops it on the floor. If the script had more thought put into it, then it could have had more to say about the nature of violence and violent media; it would have felt more like a message than an excuse. Instead, the film is a technically proficient, fairly acted pile of puff. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Random Acts of Violence 2 out of 5 stars.