In case you’re wondering, the big moral or theme of Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence is that we should be careful when creating works that depict over-the-top violence, lest some unstable fan decides to give literal life to your most gruesome imagined scenes. At least that’s what I got out of this middling, piddling, horror shocker that does pile on the guts and gore, but with scatterbrained direction, haphazard scripting, and acting that vacillates between melodramatic and indifferent.
The basic story is that comic book guy Todd (Jessie Williams, “The Butler”) is undertaking a long road trip to ComicCon in New York, accompanied by his writer-wife Kathy (Jordana Brewster, “Hooking Up”), his business partner Ezra (Baruchel, “The Art of the Steal”), and his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson, “Giant Little Ones”). Todd’s written a series of graphic novels based on a character called — not making this up — Slasherman. But the series isn’t over, because, well, Todd hasn’t figured out an ending yet and is hoping that inspiration will strike during the eastern sojourn. See, the quartet’s path takes them along I-90, which was the location of a series of murders on which Slasherman is based.
Things get off to a rocky start when they stop to get some gas and a yee-haw feller who spits a lot and asks for meth tells them to go on, git. I’m paraphrasing. They drop off a bunch of copies of the comic anyway, because apparently those grow on trees and surely the blossoming burg of roughly 50 people will queue up to buy them. Then Aurora sees a dead dog, which she sketches because that’s what she does when she’s stressed out, and this will surely become important later. Skipping ahead, they run into some more trouble when they stop for a scheduled radio interview and the host baits Todd about how his violent graphic novel is essentially profiting off the deaths of innocent people and yadda yadda yadda, and that’s when the first of several phone calls come in in which a mysterious voice gives just three numbers, like they are reading off the day’s lotto, which will also surely become important later.
Then, bam — real trouble arrives. A trio of young adults is found murdered along I-90, tied up and butchered in a position taken precisely from Todd’s Slasherman comic. Whoa! Probably just a coincidence. Ha, no. It’s not, because even if this movie was any good this eerie serendipity would be an important plot point, so naturally we should expect more of the same. Still, the gang presses on. Their problems mount, circling them at first like a vulture above a Wendy’s with a dead raccoon on the roof and then landing right on top of them (same). Who is the killer, the photocopy Slasherman? Is it a character we’ve met? Someone random? No matter who it is, I felt a guilty bit of pleasure when Todd’s inner circle was directly affected. Much time is spent with the four of them bickering amongst themselves — even when they’re not arguing, the dialog is so insipid and grating that you kind of want to throw the lot of them out of the car and hope the vehicle can make a clean escape on its own.
But no matter how mundane and familiar the storyline is, its failings pale in comparison to the direction. You’ve no doubt read reviews that mention a movie’s excellent pacing. Random Acts of Violence does not have excellent pacing. It’s kind of a stop-and-start, hitch-in-the-giddyup, tangential approach to filmmaking. The first hour or so washes over one with reckless abandon, leaving a trail of dust and logical questions in its wake. Then the final 20-minutes or so just straight up stop making much sense. All of those logical questions that you had hoped would be answered by a rousing denouement are just dashed most expertly. It is not enough simply for me to say I didn’t understand the ending. Who are these people? Why is that man doing that? Will there be some terrific twist that will somehow both make sense but still be unpredictable? I’m still not sure about the first question.
I forgot to mention that Baruchel, who plays the money guy with none of the depth or gravitas of any of his previous work, especially “How to Train Your Dragon,” also directed and co-wrote the script to Random Acts of Violence. So he has almost no one else to blame, is what I guess I’m saying here. I want my 80-minutes back. The acts of violence aren’t even random.