Jay Baruchel is a guy you know—whether or not you even realize it. Sure, his big thing is as the voice of Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, but there's a contingent of us who know and love him as the star of Judd Apatow's short-lived post-Freaks and Geeks series Undeclared, as the screenwriter of 2011's Goon and as the lead in the criminally underrated FX series Man Seeking Woman (see the inaugural episode wherein Baruchel's character's ex dates Adolf Hitler amid costar Eric Andre's insistinence that Hitler is "actually a pretty cool guy when you get to know him!"—it's comic gold).
For his newest film, Random Acts of Violence, Baruchel teams up with streaming service Shudder for a hybrid road trip/slasher movie featuring shades of neo-horror like It Follows and a gory good time laced with a supremely killer visual aesthetic and some subtle but poignant questions. And while it might not live on in the horror pantheon forever and ever, it remains a striking entry in the grand tradition.
Jesse Williams (Detroit: Become Human) plays comic book writer and artist Todd. At the tail end of a long and prosperous career creating the Slasher Man series, which he based on a -real-life serial killer (in the film's universe, anyway), Todd embarks on one final comic shop/con tour with his writer girlfriend (Jordana Brewster), his assistant (Degrassi alum Niamh Wilson) and his manager (Baruchel). Wending their way across the same stretch of highway upon which the actual killer operated, Todd becomes plagued by dark visions just as a new spate of murders seemingly based on his comics begin. Todd must face questions over the morality of violence in storytelling, the implications of a too-spirited fandom and the bleak reminder that something horrible in his own past may have been driving him all along.
Baruchel's work in the director's chair feels fresh and studied all at once. He's definitely a horror fan and he's definitely interested in taking us to the brink of unbearable tension-wise. Violence is a gory one, but despite callbacks to teen slasher flicks and the earlier days of the genre, Baruchel sidesteps hamfisted for a number of deep considerations and storytelling moments. Williams, sadly, feels out of his depth here. He and Brewster flail in scenes together under a lack of chemistry, and it's not so easy to buy their performances. Even worse, the women in the film feel like plot devices and little more.
Nevertheless, if we watch for the directorial touches and contemplate the questions Baruchel raises about what we consume, why we consume it and why we're so quick to give problematic horror elements a pass, Random Acts of Violence works as commentary. It's for the fans—a deep cut, almost; the kind of thing that'll get aficionados talking. That might just be enough.
+The direction; the questions it raises
-Williams; protracted ending
Random Acts of Violence
Directed by Baruchel
With Williams, Brewster, Wilson and Baruchel
Shudder, NR, 80 min.