Interview: Jay Baruchel and Artistic Responsibility in Random Acts of Violence
Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence is a terrifying depiction of artistic responsibility and problematic fandom
With his sophomore feature Random Acts of Violence, Canadian actor and filmmaker Jay Baruchel has left behind the ice rink of his directorial debut, Goon: Last of the Enforcers, to enter a widely explored yet just as slippery territory: that of slasher horrors.
Known for lending his voice to Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon and for FXX absurdist rom-com series Man Seeking Woman, Baruchel managed to draw a line between two genres that don’t have a great deal in common at first glance. His first film, starring American Pie’s Seann William Scott playing a hockey enforcer putting his fists to an underdog team’s service, might be a sports comedy, but is every bit just as gory as Random Acts of Violence.
Baruchel and his Goon: Last of the Enforcers writing partner Jesse Chabot were hired to adapt one-shot comic Random Acts of Violence by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray in 2010, but principal photography didn’t begin until 2018. The result of an eight-year-long production is a punch-packing, 80-minute film raising some on-point moral questions on both artistic responsibility and consumption and enjoyment of art that can be deemed problematic.
Toronto-based writer and illustrator Todd Walkley (Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams) has been able to process his own trauma and make a career out of a horrible series of murders that shook an upstate New York town decades prior. As Todd’s comic Slasherman is finally drawing to a close, the real-life serial killer who inspired the volumes isn’t thrilled at the idea of losing that platform he had been given. During a press tour, the artist realizes the murderer is recreating his own comics’ killings and threatening the lives of those close to him, including his best friend and publisher Ezra (Baruchel), assistant Aurora (Maps To The Stars’ Niamh Wilson), and girlfriend Kathy (Fast and Furious’ Jordana Brewster).
Baruchel’s fans used to the type of sophomoric humor that permeated Goon 2 will be disappointed. In Random Acts of Violence, the director was able to shake off those well-oiled comic devices to deliver an extremely dry slasher. Forget to find any comic relief in this one: you’re in for one hell of a relentlessly terrifying ride that will make sure you ask yourself all the big questions without the solace of any clear answers.
This approach allows the audience to focus primarily on the subtext of the movie, where even mundane situations take on a loaded, triggering layer of meaning. What would be an exciting meet and greet with Slasherman aficionados goes awry when a devoted fan presents the protagonist with an impeccable model reconstruction of the killer’s most heinous murder scenes, involving almost exclusively female victims.
“[That scene is] a bit of a bridge. Shit started to get bad and it’s about the walls started to close in on Todd. We wanted him to be faced with as crass and uncomfortable a distillation of his fandom as possible,” Baruchel told Signal Horizon.
“And all the intellectual gymnastics that he’s able to go through to justify what he does […] amounts to ‘I should be able to write or draw whatever I want’ which is true, but there’s also strings attached to it,” he continued.
“We wanted to show somebody that was both a religious fan of his — who, you could argue, as a creator, that’s all you ever want — but we were also interested in showing how that particular fan embodies all the things that people who take issues with his comic book think are wrong. It was a look in the mirror moment. It’s [Todd] seeing parts of himself even, that he’s really uncomfortable with.”
The movie is compelling, claustrophobic, and extremely graphic, though not in a contrived, polished manner. Baruchel credited the effectiveness of RAOV’s practical effects to his stepfather, a combat veteran and an emergency room nurse who “has seen a lot of shit”.
“We’d write a sequence and show it to him and be like, “Is this a thing that would happen?” or “What would it look like?” and so he was always there,” he explained.
Despite its relatively short runtime and a divisive finale, Random Acts of Violence ticks all the boxes of a good grindhouse slasher: a series of vicious murders from a few decades ago, a serial killer returning to haunt survivors and a pounding, eerie, synth-heavy score.
Baruchel worked with his long-time friends, animator and editor Andrew Gordon Macpherson and Alexisonfire’s Wade MacNeil, to create the score after being inspired by that of BBC show Bodyguard by Ruth Barrett.
“It was a lot a lot of discordant synth beds on top of each other to help increase the tension,” Baruchel said.
From under its gory surface, Random Acts of Violence seems to address how men can end up foster toxic behavior in other men. Through his comics, Todd gives the killer a platform and a fandom, amplifying the monster’s ego and pointing the spotlight in the wrong direction, as Kathy tries to warn him.
“We wanted her to be sort of the steward of the film’s conscience to a degree,” Baruchel said.
“She’s also meant to be representative of anybody that’s too close to some kind of type A creative personality. In any music, bio, rock book or history book or anything like that, a sort of thing keeps coming up, which is, these artists who are of profound importance to the world as a whole but are kind of crummy dads or husbands or boyfriends,” he added.
Kathy and Todd’s discussions on Slasherman escalate throughout the movie, going from a muse-artist relationship to more heated exchanges where Kathy reclaims her power through her research on the victims and her open disapproval of Todd’s not taking responsibilities.
Unlike Todd Phillips’ Joker, which worryingly winded up appealing to a certain kind of self-proclaimed misunderstood male audience, Baruchel’s movie highlights the problem with producing and worshipping art rooted in gender violence. Random Acts Of Violence also steers clear of the fetishization of female characters. It succeeds in distancing itself from most male-written and directed slashers by featuring two complex co-protagonists — Kathy and assistant and aspiring comic artist Aurora —striving not to fall into the tired trope of silent women/screaming victims.
For Kathy, particularly, “we just tried to write as good a person, and as strong and real and inconvenient a person as we could,” Baruchel explained.
In the nearly decade-long gestation of Random Acts Of Violence, Baruchel and Chabot had to make sure the movie stayed relevant with the ongoing conversation about violence against women and femme people, with one issue hitting close to home.
“Something that was of profound importance up here in Canada was something called the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” Baruchel said of the inquiry launched in 2015.
“And it took years and hundreds of millions of dollars and basically nothing is better as a result, but it forced an uncomfortable truth on the uncomfortable Canadian living rooms and dinner tables. Which is that if you were an indigenous woman, you were six times as likely to die a violent death than the average Canadian. And that’s like a staggering, unforgivable statistic that none of us should be OK with,” he said.
“That definitely had an impact on us,” he added.
Random Acts of Violence is available to stream on Shudder in US, UK & Ireland from today