Donald Trump has spent his seismic embarrassment of a presidency mocking “shithole” countries while making his the shittiest of them all. America didn’t need a Canadian to shoot a slasher rife with reminders of how poorly countries other than our own see the Land of the Free, but here’s Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence, as much a celebration of brutal violence as an outsider’s appalled view of a nation under years of right-wing rule at the expense of the majority. This is, as one character opines, a fucking crazy country. A murderer with an eye for Hannibal’s aesthetic wouldn’t even be the craziest thing American has going for it.
No such murderer exists in Random Acts of Violence until comic writers Todd (Jesse Williams) and Ezra (Baruchel) seemingly will one into being as they embark on a tour of the states: They’re on the road showing Slasherman, Todd’s exploitative (and, frankly, terribly drawn) genre opus, which is exactly what it sounds like based on the title: pages and pages of people being butchered by a man in a mask, with no message or redeeming subtext other than forced pretense Todd insists on to spare himself shame for penning trash. The true impetus behind the comic is personal—Baruchel, co-writing with Jesse Chabot, holds back on Todd’s origin story as though it’s a big surprise despite over-telegraphing it—but in keeping with his shame, Todd refuses to mention aloud the horrible, traumatic thing that happened to him as a kid. The audience just sees that kid in vivid, red-shaded flashbacks.
Joining Todd and Ezra are Kathy (Jordana Brewster), Todd’s better half, and Aurora (Niamh Wilson), his assistant, plus a handful of title cards that function as kilometer markers the farther the quartet drive into the heart of darkness. The immediate fears expressed in Random Acts of Violence are in keeping with its title: Anyone, at anytime, anywhere in the isolated middle of American nowhere can run afoul of vicious and possibly insane maniacs eager to stab them to death, then stitch together their corpse with their friends’ corpses on the side of the highway. But there’s something more than fear in Baruchel’s filmmaking. There’s disgust, contempt, maybe a dash of pity for a place so rusted and worn down by time and neglect. None of the sets here look clean. (A wrong step leads to the killer, but any step feels like it could lead to tetanus.)
Baruchel’s point of view is also his weakness. Random Acts of Violence alternates between well orchestrated meat-and-potatoes slasher fare and the movie’s ostensibly driving themes: “this is America” and “we live in a society, ” themes that collide with each other like bumbling clowns pratfalling on their way toward becoming a meme. If Random Acts of Violence had a sense of humor, it could’ve avoided pretense and functioned as a running gag to fuel the gruesome carnage. But there’s no cushioning for separating self-serious commentary from requisite slasher material, so the entire picture reads only as the former.
Random Acts of Violence doesn’t need dick-and-fart jokes to offset its assertive heaviness. It didn’t need anyone to throw a pie or slip on a banana peel. Maybe it doesn’t need humor as much as it needs personality and a way of communicating what Baruchel and Chabot mean to say through their script that isn’t engraved on the surface. The writing effectively sucks all of the fun out of the room. What Random Acts of Violence does well is move: Baruchel doesn’t waste time unraveling the mystery and hustling his viewers straight to the goods, and when people die, they die with attention to detail and a strong sense of staging. But at 80 minutes the film’s intentions remain underserved. What Random Acts of Violence has to say, it says clumsily, rushing to make its points before moving on to the next kill. There’s nothing at all random about Baruchel’s writing. He has designs. What he’s lacking is purpose.
Director: Jay Baruchel
Writers: Jay Baruchel, Jesse Chabot
Starring: Jesse Williams, Jordana Brewster, Jay Baruchel, Niamh Wilson, Simon Northwood
Release Date: August 21, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.