Thoughts on “Random Acts of Violence”

So, there have been comments before about how I don’t seem to enjoy the horror movies I watch very much, which is very much true.  As also noted before, though, I used to watch horror quite a bit — I even had the cable channel dedicated to it that I did enjoy — and so it’s not like I’m picking on a genre that I actively dislike and finding things to dislike about the movies that I already knew I’d dislike.  When I started buying these movies, I did indeed have some hopes that I might find them entertaining and the first two weren’t bad, though flawed.  For the most part, when I criticize these movies it really is because I find them too flawed to be enjoyed, which means that there really is a lot of crap out there, and oftentimes the big budget movies are more crap than the cheap ones that we’d expect to be crap.

So, after all of this, I have to say “Random Acts of Violence” is fairly unique:  the worst thing about it is that it’s too short.  While I complain about that for the other movies as well, this one is too short in a unique way.

The main premise of the movie is that an independent comic book creator has been writing a popular comic book series about a serial killer, that seems to be loosely based on a real-life serial killer.  He’s looking to end the series, and so he, his girlfriend, his business manager, and his assistant are taking a trip by car from Toronto to New York for a comic book convention where he hopes to be able to figure out how to end the series.  They are going to pass through the area where the real-life serial killer plied his trade, and his girlfriend wants to interview people about the serial killer in order to write a book focusing on the victims.  They stop at a creepy gas station, leave some of the comics behind to sell, and soon after someone comes in to look at them people start dying in ways eerily similar to how people were killed in the comics, and the comic book creator starts getting calls from the killer that he thinks are referencing Bible quotes but instead are really referencing pages from his own comic books.  And then the killer starts killing the four of them instead of strangers, and so they find themselves in a fight for their lives.

The movie sets up some things to explore.  One of them is the overarching mystery of the movie:  Why is it that he feels so compelled to write about that particular serial killer?  Another is the more obvious mystery of the movie:  Who is the serial killer and why does he kill, and why is he killing them?  There’s also a question raised over whether his drawing that sort of violence could indeed drive people to do those sorts of killing on their own.  The movie also raises the question of why the killers themselves seem to be lionized and remembered but the victims forgotten.  All of these are interesting and all of these flow fairly naturally from the plot and characterization of the movie.  And as the plot goes along, they all end up reconciled, to some extent, at the end.  It turns out that the creator himself was a victim, as his mother was killed by the original serial killer.  But it also turns out that he himself was spared because he drew the crime as it happened, and that got the serial killer thinking of his killing as art and not merely as killing.  Once the comics came out, the killer didn’t need to kill anymore because his work was still preserved as art, but when he heard that the creator was having a hard time figuring out how to end the comic he decided to start the killings again and target him and his friends to give him an appropriate ending.  Of course, when he explains this to the creator he has already killed all his friends, and demands the creator kill him (they are in the creator’s childhood home at the time).  The creator does, but then burns the house down and so never actually finishes writing the comic, and dies in the house with the killer, and the creator’s girlfriend and his friends who were taken, arguably, by his work.

This ties up the threads because it turns out that the creator himself was a forgotten victim, the sort of person that his girlfriend wants to write about . It explains why he was so obsessed with that particular killer.  It explores, at least a bit, the idea of violent art like that facilitating these sorts of crimes, as it turns out that it both provided a means for the killer to stop killing and let his purpose be played out in another way but also prompted him to kill to complete the art.  And that idea of turning a simple serial killer into someone who sees their killing as art is creepy and interesting.  So all of these are interesting ideas that are indeed played with in the ending.

So why do I say that it needed to be longer?  Because as the movie is only 1.5 hours long it doesn’t really have the time to play these out properly and give them the emphasis they deserve.  Other people and his girlfriend accuse him at various points of facilitating this sort of violence with his work, but they have no real reason to make that accusation and so it isn’t something that we have any reason to really think about.  It comes across as a complication for him, not a point that he and the audience should be thinking about.  We don’t really get inside the head of the killer until the end, as the phone calls are nothing more than the pages in his comics.  His obsession with that killer is touched on in places, but never really explored.  He doesn’t seem interested in the answer and his girlfriend never suggests theories or tries to figure it out herself.  We don’t learn anything about his past but the movie doesn’t ever set that up as something that is missing that anyone is curious about.

The worst is the actual revelation that he was indeed a victim of the killer.  The movie at various times shows the scene with the mother and the child drawing, but the child is quite dark-skinned and seems far darker skinned than the creator is.  While I’m sure that someone will point out that that indeed can happen, the problem is that the difference is one that made me dismiss the idea that the child in those flashbacks might have been the creator, despite the fact that the plot was pushing my thoughts that way.  So when it came to the ending, I felt cheated, like they had deliberately made the child look different from the creator so that we wouldn’t think they were the same person, but then asked us to just accept that they were even with that.  So more time taken to build this up would have allowed them to be more subtle with the revelation and so have a better chance of keeping it hidden until the end.  At the very least, they could have made it clear that this was something that was happening in his own mind and so he pictured someone who was not himself so as to distance himself from it and only at the revelation does he admit to himself that the child was indeed himself (the easiest way to do that is to show pictures from when he himself was a child, use a different child in the flashbacks, and at the revelation morph the different child to himself as a child to show that).

This overall hurts the ending because without developing these themes more I don’t really get why he stays in the burning building to die.  Is it just grief?  Does he hold himself responsible?  Does he want it all to end?  A better exploration of these themes would give us more to build on to make the ending — and the imagined ending of the comic — better fit what happens in the actual movie.

However, I say it needed to be longer because unlike some of the other shorter horror movies or movies that I say didn’t develop their themes or characters enough, this movie doesn’t seem like there’s any wasted time that they could have used to do this.  The pacing is actually really good, with very little “downtime” where we’re wondering what might come next.  The times it stops to talk or do interviews or the like are things that do set-up for later things or are things that just seem to fit at that point in the movie.  And to get the horror and violence aspect they do have to show the stalking and killing of the victims.  So I feel that there just wasn’t any room to add this extra development.  But a longer movie would have had more time to do this development and explore these issues.  As it is, there just isn’t the time to explore these interesting ideas to the degree that they deserved to be explored.

I could watch this movie again, as it was paced well and was entertaining enough.  I have too many things to watch right now to do so, but overall this was a pretty good movie.  It raised some interesting ideas and its only flaw is that it doesn’t feel like it explored them as much as they deserved to be explored.


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