Superheroes. Super villains. Cinematic universes. It would be nearly impossible at this point to have avoided the influence of comic books and graphic novels on the modern cultural zeitgeist...
...Every aspect of popular consumable media has been suffused with comic properties, heroes and navel gazers alike. With the help of events like San Diego Comic Con, the culture of fandom itself has been brought to the forefront which makes a work of metafiction like Random Acts of Violence a natural next step.
With Jesse Chabot writing and Jay Baruchel co-writing and directing, Random Acts of Violence offers a less-than-faithful adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name. We follow artist and writer Todd (Jesse Williams) and his publisher Ezra (Baruchel) as they navigate the success of Todd’s Slasherman comic book series, a hyper-violent and arguably misogynistic universe where serial killer Slasherman serves as the protagonist and spends a majority of his time brutalizing women and molding them into phantasmagoric tableaus.
Struggling with his integrity as a writer and penning the final issue of the series, Todd decides to turn his upcoming signing tour into a road trip in hopes of shaking loose some inspiration. In tow with Todd and Ezra are Todd’s girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster) who is writing a book about the victims of the real-life inspiration for Slasherman, and his assistant and aspiring illustrator Aurora (Niamh Wilson).
The four pile into a car and descend upon the backroads of Canada where they are almost immediately greeted by unsavory characters. Creepy backwoods gas station proprietors and a duplicitous radio DJ that draws Todd into a confrontational interview set the grim tone. Things veer fully into the pitch when a rash of murders begin to follow the group from location to location. Murders too eerily reminiscent of Todd’s conjurations to be simple coincidence. Audiences would do well to gird their loins for one in particular, entitled “The Triptych”, one gruesome enough to be worthy of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.
As the events circle ever closer to our crew, the connections between the book and the escalating violence come to the attention of law enforcement and an accusatory eye is cast in Todd’s direction; even those in his party begin to question the culpability of his creations. A series of flashbacks and cryptic communiqués with the killer draw obfuscated lines between Todd and the flesh and blood Slasherman as the main players drift toward what I fully believe Baruchel intended to be an explosive finish.
In an attempt to better understand Chabot and Baruchel’s undertaking in adapting Random Acts of Violence I decided to pick up the source material. The original, created by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, tells a similar story with some fundamental differences. Upon finishing the book, it became clear that Chabot and Baruchel’s adaptation suffered much in the way many book-to-film adaptations suffer: they simply strayed too far from the source material. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool purist by any stretch, but too often Hollywood thinks it knows better and that it can do better when in fact it doesn’t, and it can’t.
One of the biggest losses in the transition is the omission of nearly any character work. While I’d never call the comic a riveting character study, it puts in the time to elevate its generic players out of single dimensionality. Almost all of that is forsaken in the film, favoring instead a loose meat sandwich of intrigue and mythology. And I mean loose. The meat is barely on the bones folks, and while that might make for some decent barbecued ribs, it does a deep disservice to the narrative cohesion.
Equally disappointing is the film forcing the comic book culture aspects to take a backseat whereas in the comics they are paramount and inextricable from the horrific goings on of the main plot. This aspect is also arguably one of the more interesting that the graphic novel explores.
The motivation for the murders in the graphic novel is convoluted, to say the least, yet the film completely overhauls it and somehow manages to make it even more convoluted. The choice to abandon the simpler of the two is baffling. Chabot and Baruchel’s landing choices might have stuck in a different movie, or if they’d had the gumption to make the whole as bombastic and batshit as its pieces. Even the title sequence is a true crime vaporwave assault of missing persons flyers and crime scene photos that suggest a very different type of outing.
On an amusing side-note, the metafiction aspects of Random Acts of Violence seem to have seeped into the real world. Apparently one of the publishers behind the comic book reached out to Baruchel and Chabot to adapt the film mirroring a scene from the comic itself where a media rep propositions Todd and Ezra at a comic convention about optioning Slasherman.
It isn’t surprising that with Baruchel’s Hollywood clout he was able to land the cast he did. Unfortunately, everyone, including Baruchel himself, is wasted on the shallow script. And anyone familiar with my metrics will know that I’ll forgive even some larger missteps if at least one of the key elements of the production is working, especially the cast. But here we are, 2020, socially distanced and thoroughly pandemic’d and not even eye candy like Jesse Williams can save the experience. Dark times y'all, dark times.
All in all, it’s an unfortunate loss and misuse of talents, and, in the spirit of transparency, it was difficult even for me. In writing this review, I kept getting distracted thinking about how different my life might be if my waistline were as thin as the narrative of Random Acts of Violence. Alas, we may never know.
Random Acts of Violence will be available to stream on Shudder starting August 20th.
By Paul Bauer