The endless highways of America have always been fascinating as a symbol of freedom for a country obsessed with the concept. The lure of the open road and its glorious isolation has been romanticised in decades of literature and cinema from Kerouac through Bogdanovich, Hellman and Lynch. Even luminaries of European cinema like Wenders and Kaurismäki have trekked cameras across the country. This new mythology has a dark side, however. In a certain light, the countless interstates contain only a terrifying emptiness and lawlessness, with only the odd motel stippling the landscape like a keloid scar any indication of civilisation. Bad things happen in these vast spaces, as Jay Baruchel’s new film demonstrates. Random Acts of Violence is a slasher that reckons with its own creation and the media depiction and consumption of violence.

Todd Walker (Jesse Williams) is the writer of ‘Slasherman’, a gruesome but successful graphic novel about a serial killer slaughtering his way across the highways and byways of America. Todd based his character on the exploits of a murder active in the late 80s and early 90s, with whom – as implied by several surreal flashbacks – he had direct contact as a child. He sets out on a promotional tour along the same routes he depicts in his work, hoping that this will help to overcome a case of writer’s block and provide a satisfactory ending to the story. However, as he begins the tour, the killings start again, and they directly reference the carnage in Todd’s comic.

Over a brutal, rapacious 80 minutes, Baruchel (who predicted Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon would release a neo-slasher?) gets to indulge an incipient sadistic streak while wrestling with the age-old question of whether art imitates life or vice versa. His ‘I-90 Killer’ is copying murders directly from Todd’s comic, who wrote it after being inspired by the killer’s original spree. Baruchel is ambivalent about Todd’s responsibility. Is he glorifying murder, or is he simply depicting violence as it has always existed?

Random Acts of Violence is aware of its own internal paradox and leaves the viewer to plot their own moral coordinates. Where you fall on the chicken and egg issue of Todd’s complicity likely depends on your stance on cinematic violence in general. “‘Slasherman’ is … my life,” one superfan gushes at a store signing, which gives Todd pause for thought. He’s also ambushed by a radio DJ whose sister was a victim of the I-90 Killer. His wife, Kathy (Jordana Brewster) is also writing about the killings but with a focus on the victims. She believes they deserve to be remembered as more than salacious statistics (again, art weirdly imitates life). Yet, there’s no denying the impact of the gore – the murder aestheticises his kills like those in the TV version of Hannibal – and there’s no shortage of it. And, we wouldn’t be watching if it failed on that front.

Williams and Brewster are no strangers to the postmodern side of horror (The Cabin in the Woods, The Faculty) and bring some much-needed humanity to what could have ended up as a semantic exercise, and a relentlessly grim one at that (even The House that Jack Built which covers the same thematic ground and is arguably nastier, had its mutilated tongue in its cheek). Williams, in particular, has a soulful air that suggests he is wrestling with his conscience for real, particularly when the killer’s attentions get closer to home. Karim Hussain‘s cinematography is drenched in neon cool with just enough fuzz to keep things rooted in the grindhouse, and there’s the now requisite, insistent Carpenter-esque score which leaves no doubt from which era Baruchel is drawing his influences.

At 80 minutes it does feel like something important has been left on the cutting room floor. It’s likely that this relates to Todd’s youth. The flashbacks are too vague to make a concrete point about his trauma being the chief catalyst for his art but they are way too frequent and blunt to be merely abstruse, tantalising hints. Are these repressed memories, which would make his art subconscious? Or are they scored into his brain with clarity? It is possible that this question has been left purposely unanswered – if Todd is using ‘Slasherman’ as a therapeutic outlet, it would lessen his complicity in the propagation of the depicted violence – but it leaves an unsatisfying hole at the core of the story.

Character obfuscation aside, Random Acts of Violence is a decent new spin, not just on the slasher film, but specifically on the stylised, gaudy nastiness of the giallo. Along with the likes of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears), and Yann Gonzalez (Knife + Heart), it’s evidence of a new generation of filmmakers updating that most disreputable sub-genre with contemporary themes. In a way, it’s fitting that Random Acts of Violence riffs on the arguments that were made about several of the films it uses as touchstones. While any discussion of the themes within is doomed to be moot, Random Acts of Violence has a good stab at dealing with its big ideas. It’s also indicative of a filmmaker with enough talent to make something great sooner rather than later.

Available to stream on Shudder from Thu 20 Aug 2020