Synopsis: Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) and his publisher Ezra (Jay Baruchel) made their careers crafting a comic book based on a real-life serial killer called Slasherman. On a press tour to announce the launch of their final issue, they visit the town where Slasherman wreaked havoc twenty years earlier. Upon their arrival, a series of new murders unfold… murders that look eerily familiar to imagery in Todd’s Slasherman comics. Speculation and paranoia build regarding the identity of the mysterious killer.
The most poignant note in Jay Baruchel’s 2020 masterpiece Random Acts of Violence occurs fifteen minutes into the movie. Kathy (Jordana Brewster) and Aurora (Niamh Wilson) are reviewing Kathy’s note, the foundational elements for her planned book on the victims of Slasherman, the killer from her boyfriend Todd’s (Jesse Williams) graphic novel based on a real-life (diegetic) serial killer. Aurora asks, “Why is it weird that she’s smiling?” when looking at photographs of one of the female victims, likely taken several days before her death. Kathy responds: “She looks helpless, you know? ’Cause you know something that she doesn’t. She’s about to be murdered– horribly–and she’s just helpless, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Random Acts of Violence was a difficult movie for me to review when I first watched it following its home premiere on Shudder in August of this year. Violence certainly supplied the requisite jolts and thrills I expected from a genre entry, but like several other critics and viewers, the kind of violence in the movie– the very visceral, very real, very graphic, and unostentatious violence– left me feeling uncomfortable and almost sick. Genre cinema, while confrontational and curative, is still cinema, and even the most frightening of genre entries offer some degree of respite from the horrors of everyday life. Indeed, in everyday life, violence is an abstraction. Violence is distant and second-hand– it happens to thee but not to me.
Two months later, though, and I recognize how terribly wrong and misguided that perspective was. Random Acts of Violence wanted me to feel uncomfortable, and it’s good that I did. In real life, the day to day ennui and general state of living, violence too often is an abstraction. It’s a nebulous and mercurial concept– a state of being all its own– that feels so distant and unremarkable because it is both so very common and so very permanent. Depression, grief, love, and heartbreak– these are recoverable. Illness and maladies of the mind and heart can be overcome. There are accounts and there are triumphs. With death, the accounts are biographical, and the triumphs are impossible. No one knows what it feels like to die or what comes next. There is faith, some belief in the unknown, but death can never be fully understood, because death, as it pertains to the corporeal life on earth, is quietude.
That alone is certainly understandable, but there are times where that ambiguity and inevitability breed to form a vicious strain of callousness and apathy. On Halloween night in 2006, Nicole “Nikki” Catsouras was nearly decapitated when she clipped another car on the 241 toll in south Orange County, California, and crashed into a toll booth at over 100mph. Photos of the accident, which I will certainly not describe here, are still circulating around on the internet, a kind of new-age dare, a cruel variant of pranking friends with surprise Google search terms. The images still haunt Catsouras’s family to this day, and they successfully sued the county for allowing the crash site photos to go public. To them, death isn’t an abstraction. Death is Nikki, their daughter, their sister, and their friend. She would have been 32 today.
When teens die doing something stupid or someone older passes away, it’s perceived as a joke or an inexorable part of life. It’s fascinating and morbid, but it doesn’t feel real. The violence is fiction. That, though, is a pernicious and fiendish perception, and it’s one I have been guilty of in the past. Granted, the irony of death is amusing, it’s a coping mechanism not unlike black comedy and the darkest of gallows humor. It’s an uncomfortable, discursive space that manifests when reconciling the desire to not live in fear and the desire to take death as seriously as it deserves to be. I have been very close to death, however. The little tendrils of Death’s fingers have touched me and imprinted on my very being. It’s a frightening thing, certainly, but it’s also purifying and clarifying. Death and violence need to be taken seriously, and Random Acts of Violence understands that.
The horror genre, like all good things, is just as capable of being corrupted and perverted, led far away from its core intention contingent on the creators in charge. Some horror cures and inspires, some disgust and confront, while others acquiesce to the basest of curiosities– a filmic variant of Reddit’s now-defunct “WatchPeopleDie” page. Death is the most assured of consequences, but that fascination and perversion can sometimes go too far. Indifference and detachment can hurt people. It can hurt the people whose lives are bound and tethered to violence and death, who know it as more than a state but as an old friend.
The nature of polysemic media texts allows me to draw a clear line of distinction between something like 2014’s Belgian thriller De behandeling (The Treatment)– a film whose gravity well is violence against children and oneself– and something like 2010’s A Serbian Film. Where De behandeling emulsifies its violence and graphic content for some larger purpose, A Serbian Film seems to relish in the depravity the parameters of the genre permit, inflicting violence and suffering and rendering it almost tangible, like it’s tempting the audience to look away. It’s not a movie– it’s a dare. Random Acts of Violence is considerably closer to the former.
Kudos, then, to Jay Baruchel for a stunning genre debut. I needed the discomfort, and I needed the uncertainty. While some genre fans have taken the default defensive stance, eager to push back against Baruchel’s (admittedly misplaced) sentiment that the genre is strictly exploitative, the core message of Violence still stands. The violence and the death in the movie are ugly and dour on purpose. Rather than a statement on just the genre, Baruchel has made a statement on how we consume and perceive violence every day. Violence has real victims. It hurts real people, people whose opportunities to have their voices heard have forever been erased.
Contemporary social science research has both empirically and rhetorically evaluated the impact of violent media on audiences. Violence in true crime media can be illuminating, but it can also be obsessive. Violent media can haunt geographies and become a permanent fixture in a victim’s life, a sixth sense of sorts to see and perceive the elegiac edge of the knife. It can be motivational and serves as means to an end, namely justice. Bearing witness to the true horrors of life, perhaps, motivates others to interject and intercede in the lives of others to stop the cycle of violence. It can just as easily, though, numb audiences, heighten aggression, and rouse disinterest in real, consequential violence. Random Acts of Violence is a complicated yet stunning movie. It is one of my favorites of the year because, beyond the craftsmanship on display, it has a lot to say about the nature of violence and the nature of our collective role as spectator. Whether you agree or not, it’s a conversation long past due, and I’m grateful to Baruchel for giving us the chance to have it.
Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioral health and has been a horror fan since birth. His favorites include Scream, Halloween, Alien, and tawdry ’80s slasher films. You can find him on Twitter at @chaddiscollins.