When I interviewed Jay Baruchel about his directorial debut, 2017’s Goon: Last of the Enforcers, he clearly outlined all of the technical and visual challenges that he had set for himself in order to scale up from the first film. When I saw that his next directorial effort was the horror comic adaptation Random Acts of Violence, I thought he was deliberately scaling back — then I actually saw Random Acts of Violence.
“Being scared of the strings attached to subject matter shouldn’t be a reason not to do it,” says Baruchel. “You should not go into it for a bunch of reasons: you don’t agree, you don’t give a shit, you can’t wrap your head around it or whatever. But being scared of something… I think if I’m scared of something I’m interested in, that tells me I should try to look into it a little bit more. It’s a combination of two things, basically. First was this idea that I couldn’t name most of the victims in most of the horror flicks I’d seen, but I could name all of the killers. And then, obviously, the next thing was that it was true in real life. I can name a bunch of fuckin’ awful murderers, but I’d be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of the people they hurt and killed. I wasn’t thrilled by that! (laughs)”
Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) is a comic-book artist whose long-running series Slasherman is coming to an end after several years. Based on a real-life serial killer that terrorized a stretch of the United States in the late ’80s, Slasherman remains controversial in the world of the film for what many deem irresponsible use of real-life tragedy. As Todd, his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster), his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) and editor Ezra (Jay Baruchel) head on a press tour of the area where the real Slasherman committed his crimes, Todd is forced to examine his role in perpetuating the myth of Slasherman in the immediate world where the victims have been reduced to gory panels in his comic books — until someone starts killing people around them by emulating the kills drawn by Todd.
“That t-boned with this other concept that I’d been interested in for a while: the potentially harmful nature of the creative process for some people,” Baruchel continues. “It’s like this: in any kind of artistic or creative field, there are people generating work that have their heads so far up their own ass that everyone in their immediate orbit suffers as a result of being close to this person. Read any rock bio or watch any kind of music documentary — rare is the rockstar that anybody they’re actually blood-related to has anything nice to say about. There’s something to that, to somebody scratching an itch in their head at the cost of the people they’re supposed to care about. ”
Though it starts life as a fairly straightforward horror movie, Random Acts of Violence also makes it clear early on that it will grapple with metatextual elements surrounding creation. What is the responsibility of the artist? Is it irresponsible to use real pain and real tragedy to make art? Is the artist responsible for how their art is received by fans? Is it irresponsible to reject or ignore that reception? Suffice to say that this is pretty heady stuff for a horror movie, especially one like this, which asks the viewer to grapple directly with their basest instincts. The contradiction (decrying something that you also indulge in) makes Random Acts of Violence more than just a straightforward gorefest.
“Mercifully, a film is a collaborative process,” says Baruchel. “Even if I’m the steward of the heroic ideal that’s propelling the thing, everyone else’s fingerprints are on it. That’s a good thing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it tempers me. I realize that there’s no point in having this thing come from an uber-judgy place so much as present the dialectic. If you go to the grocery store, look on the back of the product, see that the first ingredient is glucose but you still buy it? That’s totally fucking fine, man! (laughs) That’s on you, but you should know that glucose is in there. I’m someone that has a true-crime section in my library at home. I’m interested in that stuff and I grew up in a home where my mom was super into it as well. I’m fascinated by it, but I have to constantly remind myself that these are people with families. They’re not just names. I think the most powerful true crime book I’ve ever read is the Ann Rule book about the Green River Killer, because she doesn’t really even fucking name him. What the book is is a collection of biographies of the women that he murdered. It’s a profoundly heavy read, obviously, but that’s the thing! I think that this push-and-pull, if nothing else, it makes for good drama.”
It stands to reason that, although Random Acts of Violence has at its core a fervent criticism of violence in art, it’s also a gory horror movie made by a fan of horror movies. There are heady ideas contained in this film, but there are also decapitated heads — which, for Baruchel, was always going to have to be the case.
“To zoom out even further, I would say that a horror movie’s primary function is to what? It’s to scare you,” says Baruchel. “If you’re not being scared, then the movie is failing. If your jaw drops at how outlandish a decapitation or a severing is and a body is doing something it can’t actually do to the point where you look at the person next to you and go, ‘Holy fuck!,’ that’s shock, that’s excitement, but that’s not fear, right? There’s nothing scary about that shit. I was also trying to make something that was legit scary. If I failed at everything else — if I failed at having an interesting conversation or giving people something to think about — I wanted to know that, no matter what, I fucked with them a bit. That’s the whole point of this kind of movie. That goes to taking some of the music out of it. I don’t mean literally music, but taking some of the rhythm and the artifice out of it, and trying my best to have it play out strange and sad and clumsy. Our killer psychs himself up and not every fucking hit lands, because I assume — and obviously I’ve never had to go through that — that that is closer to what it might be like.”
The killer in Random Acts of Violence subscribes to many of the tropes of the killer in a horror film — he’s often only glimpsed, for example — but one that he pointedly isn’t is the sort of superhuman figure that eventually grew out of ’80s slasher films. No matter the identity of the killer in a classic slasher, their capacities are tenfold when they’re in “killing mode.” They can crash through walls and rip arms out with their bare hands, even if they turn out to be the little old lady down the lane.
“We turn things into heroes and monsters because the fact that it’s just people hurting people is almost incomprehensible,” says Baruchel. “And, by the way, every time we perpetuate the myth of a serial killer and only celebrate the grandeur of what he did as opposed to the horror of what he did, that makes him more of a monster. When you don’t go into how awful it would it be to suffer through what the victims had to suffer and you just get into, ‘And then he was in there and then he did this, and he did that,’ you’re really only just looking at the baddest kid in the playground. There’s a bit of a danger in that, I think.”
In that sense, Random Acts of Violence appeals to our basest instincts of fascination with violence — that everyone, to some degree, is interested in the violence that also repels us. Even the most sensitive of us will find some appeal in levels of violence that we cannot fathom. I bring up that my own fascination with true crime tends to focus on the urban geography of it — where crime happens and how the streets and neighbourhoods are subsequently shaped by it. I’m less interested in the motivations behind a murder than the aftermath and the setting of it, which seems less scabrous and gloomy but remains fairly questionable.
“I think what it boils down to is that we’re not supposed to kill each other,” laughs Baruchel. “We’re not even supposed to hurt each other. So when we do, it draws our attention. I think it’s a reasonable process to get to. I was trying to make a movie about somebody writing about victims who’s forced to become one and what that process looks like. It’s not romantic, and it’s not gonna be a fucking good time.” ■
Random Acts of Violence by Jay Baruchel opens in Montreal theatres and VOD on July 31. Watch the trailer here:
For more film reviews and features, see our Film & TV section.