Monday, March 9, 2015

Man Bites the Big Apple

Low budget indie horror movies streaming on Netflix Instant can sometimes prove less enjoyable than a dentist appointment or smelly ride on a crowded 1 train. Try as I might though to battle my undying sense of optimism, I continue to browse its selections with the sunny hopefulness of a big-haired orphan on the lap of FDR.

And just like Annie's trust fund, today, I am rewarded.

Quick Plot: Malcolm is a young British-American who has spent the last fifteen years bemoaning New York City's Lower East Side loss of its punk edge to the cleaner plague of gentrification. Of course, being in his late 20s/early 30s, Malcolm never actually experienced this glorified pre-Guiliani period, but if Rent has taught us anything, it's that self-proclaimed bohemian artists are equally obnoxious as the skinny jean-wearing hipsters that have replaced them.

Alas, the grass is always greener through misplaced nostalgia, so Malcolm enlists the help of two documentary filmmakers to chronicle his mission of bringing Manhattan back to its graffiti-covered twentieth century past. In order to do this, Malcolm embarks on nightly murder sprees where he takes out any New Yorker he deems as representative of the new wave (not to be confused with the French New Wave, which of course, Malcolm and his clique of cinema-loving pals adore).

Though dedicated to filmmaker Samuel Fuller, Random Acts of Violence is most indebted to the 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog. Like Remy Belvaux’s tale, Random Acts of Violence is filmed as a narcissistic documentary and lorded over by self-righteous sociopath who bears no guilt over brutally murdering innocent bystanders by the dozen. Where Benoit Poelvoorde had a little charm, however, Ashley Cahill's Malcolm is never presented as being anything but a pathetic brat.

Therein lies the true cleverness of Random Acts of Violence. Cahill writes, directs, and stars with the vital understanding that Malcolm is nowhere near being a hero, nor anywhere close to being right. Sure, it's funny to be annoyed at a homeless man spurning free pizza because its meat topping offends his vegetarian sensibilities, but for all of Malcolm's rhetoric, he's as much a part of the system as his friends who sport modern haircuts and Godard t-shirts. His revolution begins by spreading the threat that anyone can be harmed by the atmosphere of the city, yet as soon as someone he actually cares about gets hurt by a titular random act of violence, Malcolm refuses to hear the tenets of what he has been preaching. He's a hypocrite, plain and simple, but also a violent, petty, petulant man with a trigger happy finger.

I have a feeling some viewers will watch Random Acts of Violence and complain about the unlikability of the characters or insult it as a self-important indie flick. Some may even see Malcolm as a hero with grand and justified ambitions in his quest to give New York a wakeup call. Because the film doesn't tip its hand, it is very possible that many a filmgoer--and horror fan with torture porny expectations--may not quite realize that Cahill's Malcolm is an intentionally pathetic little man. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a brilliantly utilized Kirsten Dunst cameo.

Yes, I just used the term 'brilliantly utilized Kirsten Dunst cameo' with a somewhat straight face.

Browsing the web for other information on Random Acts of Violence (also found under the titles Charm and Malcolm), I'm mostly finding angry reviews that see the film as a lame hipster horror movie. That's disappointing, but inevitable. As Starship Troopers long ago proved, good satire will occasionally be viewed as a crumby version of what it's satirizing. Opinions are subjective so for all I know, Cahill did indeed intend this to be a valentine to grimy Basket Case-era NYC and a treatise on bringing the edge back downtown. I fear for those viewers who take that moral away from the film, as I see a far more entertaining tongue-in-cheek black comedy about just how silly those negative idealists are when they idolize a world they never experienced. The Truffaut worshiping artist who rails against the modern celebrity will often be the same man humbled into submission when an A-list actress shares his elevator space. The horror in Random Acts of Violence isn't in the potential rebirth of a dangerous metropolis, but in the laughable hubris of an entitled fool.

And just look at that scarf!

High Points
For a movie all about gratuitous violence, it's refreshing that Random Acts of Violence ironically does not revel in its, you know, random acts of violence. Yes, the actual murders are abhorrent and immoral, but the film doesn't linger on anything we don't need to see. It's the act itself that is horrible enough

Credit really must go to one-man-movie band Ashley Cahill who as far as I know, probably also made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the production team. His performance as Malcolm is so perfectly obnoxious without being showy, while the film's quick flow is certainly thanks to his work behind the camera

Low Points
As someone who appreciates but doesn't love Man Bites Dog, I love how Random Acts of Violence plays off its structure but I don't love that for whatever reason, Cahill never seems to acknowledge it as (obvious) inspiration

Lessons Learned 
When trying to enter a stranger's home and they ask who's knocking, always say "Me!" with authority. Works like a charm

A German sense of humor is no laughing matter

Never underestimate the languidness of a comfortable pleb (and I suppose, while you’re at it, never get involved in a land war in Asia?)

At just 86 minutes, Random Acts of Violence is smart in getting in and out without wasting too much time. The film is streaming on Netflix and is, in my opinion, genuinely worth a watch. Fans of Man Bites Dog might see it as a little derivative, but Cahill manages to take that same concept and make it very much his own and perhaps even more interestingly, very much New York. 


  1. Most accurate and enlightened review I've ever read about this film.

  2. I'm not usually in the habit to reading old reviews of anything I may have been involved in, but I'm currently in pre-production for my next feature and am casting it so I thought I'd scroll through the IMDB reviews to see what the actors who might look this up for reference would be in store for. Having come across this review, I must agree with mr unknown above that it is certainly the most accurate review - at least as far as what I was trying to achieve in terms of satire - that I have read. I'm so glad to see someone fully understanding it and, of course, I am also happy for the glowing review. I hope you will get a chance to see my next film - if it ever gets released! I start shooting it early in the new year. Alas this one is not a comedy, but nor is it violent. Just your run of the mill drama.
    Anyway - just wanted to say I appreciated your review. - Ashley Cahill (I know there's no way for you to know that this is actually me, but why would anyone else pretend? It's not like I'm Stanley Kubrick over here.
    PS. On the MAN BITES DOG zero reference front. I was originally asked to write a remake of MBD officially by Wes Craven's company. That then fell through and they didn't want to make the movie. My producers then suggested why not just make it myself for no money. However, they feared potential lawsuits if we acknowledged the film too directly, and so that is why I removed any tip of the hats to it. That is also why I made CHARM in the first place, however, since - to be honest - it's not the kind of film I would normally bother writing.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting! That's a fascinating tidbit about the MBD almost remake. Great job in turning what I imagine was a disappointment into something that's truly your own. I hope more people find and 'get' it.

      Much luck on your future endeavors Mr. Cahill, or a deranged fan of Mr. Cahill's who prowls the internet pretending to be him (hey, you really never can know, right?).