Random Acts of Violence Is Tense, Stylish, and Muddled
Random Acts of Violence ends with its protagonist committing the precise act that his nemesis provoked him to commit, and then commenting defiantly, “fuck your ending,” as if Brad Pitt’s character had gloated at the end of Seven. It’s a fitting final moment in a film filled with cognitive dissonance toward its main character: awe, repulsion, fascination, impatience. But it’s also an exclamation point on an otherwise muddled sentence. Random Acts is terrifying, haunting, and blood-curdling in various moments, but its obsession with man and man's myth-making yank it off-track far too often.
Random Acts is a brisk 80-minute journey following a comic book creator plagued by a set of murders inspired by his pages – accompanied by his girlfriend, assistant, and business partner on a road trip from Toronto to New York City. Jay Baruchel writes, directs, and fits snugly into a supporting role as the uptight business partner, while Jesse Williams and Jordana Brewster inhabit the believable but uninspired couple at the story’s center, Todd and Kathy.
In his second directorial outing (after 2017’s Goon: Last of the Enforcers), Baruchel shows a sleek style centered on ambitious but grounded visuals. He uses tight close-ups without abusing them to the point of nausea; slow pans without lulling into an A24-esque atmospheric slow-burn; and comic book imagery without tipping into MCU-level fan-service. His history is in comedy, but the Canadian actor and stand-up has a deep understanding of the tools of a good horror film: he knows how to terrify us using only the ordinary. An early sequence in which the four road-trip compatriots ferociously debate whether to get out of the car after a near accident with an ominous truck is choreographed to perfection: quick editing, a chaotic soundscape of yelling and honking, and the weaponization of the fear of the unknown, scarier than the goriest, bloodiest thing you can imagine.
When Baruchel stumbles, it’s as writer rather than director of this adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name. He stuffs a tangled web of ideas and subplots into Random Acts, but the central arc isn’t strong enough to hold it all, like a clothesline that sags in the middle from a few too many pairs of corduroys. Kathy tries more than once to drag Todd and the movie into the lightning-rod debate over the relationship between art and violence, but they resist, both more comfortable treating her as a plot device, an existence that’s only valuable when she is useful to them. It’s a disappointing and reoccurring setback, as the film repeatedly makes the very same mistakes as Todd, getting lost in its own self-image.
Nonetheless, Random Acts of Violence is an encouraging foray into the horror genre for Baruchel, and with the right story, his follow-up could reach the next level. Along with a few peers, he has the potential to reinvigorate the flagging stalker-slasher sub-genre. Though if real art is just “inflicting pain on others,” as the film’s brooding antagonist suggests, perhaps it doesn't get any better than this.