Taken on its own, the concept of Marjane Satrapi’s latest film The Voices gives little insight into which genre it belongs to: An awkward, small-town, blue collar worker named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) talks to his pets and as it so happens, they talk back. In fact, his cat encourages him to kill people. As Jerry fights what he realizes is a potentially-disastrous mental disorder, he also must juggle his relationships with the girl he likes (Fiona, played by Gemma Arterton) and the girl who likes him (Lisa, played by Anna Kendrick).
With murder, mental disabilities, and love, the movie is as hard to pin down as you’d think. While primarily a comedy (albeit a very dark one) there are moments where the story lurches into straight-up horror territory. I’m not one to become uncomfortable from movies, but the fluidity from which the film moves from straight-up campy humor to straight-up disturbing violence made me viscerally repulsed. However, as it became clear that the movie was purposely playing with the audience in order to soak us in Jerry’s uncomfortable, disorienting mind space, the fact that the film is such a tonal mess started to feel more like a genius design than the work of someone throwing random parts in a blender.
There are many memorable movies that similarly try to place the audience into the subjective perspective of an insane person (American Psycho immediately comes to mind), but The Voices sets itself apart from the pack in two very important ways. First, there is never a doubt that Jerry is crazy. We are never made to ask ‘what if the pets really are talking to him?’ No, from the opening scenes it is made abundantly clear that he is in fact psychotic, and it becomes clearer and clearer just how nuts he is as the movie progresses. The message is hammered home in a couple of very effective scenes which give us glimpses of the dark, twisted reality hiding behind the bright, flowery, and often surreal filter of Jerry’s abnormal psyche through which the film is normally presented.
The second factor that makes The Voices unique is that Jerry himself is aware that he’s insane. Unlike films like Fight Club or Shutter Island, Jerry’s condition is never used as a plot twist or a way to manipulate the audience. Those other movies show how scary it is that someone can be insane and never even know it. The Voices, on the other hand, shows how scary it is that someone can know they’re insane, try to fight against their condition, but sometimes simply can’t control their own mind or body. Jerry’s journey has little to do with accepting he has a problem. It’s whether or not, under all of his uncontrollable impulses, he can remain a ‘good person’.
Screenwriter Michael R. Perry was smart to take this road-less-traveled approach, and he does a fantastic job of taking an extreme example of mental disrepair and making it relevant to the hopefully less-severe internal struggles everybody faces. It becomes an allegory not just for schizophrenia but for any sort of addiction or impulse that comes as part and parcel of having a human mind. We all have a form of what Jerry has, Perry suggests, and in recognizing this, I became immensely invested in where Jerry would end up, regardless of how far down the rabbit hole he went.
As Jerry, Ryan Reynolds portrays this complex inner struggle in what is without a doubt the best performance of his career. It is never an easy feat to make an audience root for a murderer, but Jerry comes off as a miraculously empathetic character. In fact, he somehow becomes more empathetic as he performs more and more psychopathic acts, and Reynolds must be given an immense amount of credit for this.
Jake Gyllenhaal was recently praised for his performance in Nightcrawler as the insane Lou Bloom, who is pretty much unashamedly crazy and just thinks he’s doing what he must to get what he wants. Reynolds, I would argue, plays a much more subtle kind of insanity, in which each look and each line of dialogue ultimately displays a world of inner turmoil inside of himself, where he struggles to contain his violent urges while constantly questioning his own sense of morality and self-control. I always looked down on Reynolds as someone who tried too hard to paint himself as either some sort of goofy, Dane Cook-ish everyman (Waiting, The Proposal) or as generic action hero (Green Lantern, the overrated Buried). Only here have I finally seen what producers and agents have apparently seen in him for years.
The rest of the supporting cast is also fantastic. Gemma Arterton seems to be having the most fun, especially when she gets to be a talking, overly-British, severed head. Anna Kendrick, as always, is able to thread the needle between comedy and drama precisely how the film needs. And Jacki Weaver is also reliably great as Jerry’s court-appointed therapist (which connects to an unsubtle but arguably necessary backstory for Jerry).
Directed by the Iranian-born Satrapi, who is most famous for writing the graphic novel Persepolis and directing its 2007 film adaptation, excels in her first English-language film. I often find it glaringly obvious when a foreign filmmaker directs American actors (such as Stoker and Snowpiercer), but Satrapi avoids a similar fate with dialogue that sounds natural and humor that consistently hits its mark. She also handles the script’s uneasy genre jumble remarkably well, and clearly has a lot of admiration and love for the traditions and tropes of both horror and comedy films. She’s also daring, allowing the film to purposefully ‘fall apart’ for some truly wacky moments (like the This Is The End-caliber WTF ending, which I have to admit I kind of loved).
It’s unfortunate that The Voices ultimately falls just short of imparting any sort of new or indispensable insight into the human mind, despite how close it gets to doing so. In the end, the movie seems content with simply showing us ourselves in Jerry, and revealing our own delusions via Jerry’s over-the-top, embellished ones. Ultimately, The Voices becomes more of a cautionary tale than the true character study it seemed to be going for, which is kind of shame since it seemed there was so much left to explore within Jerry’s mind.
The Voices was never going to be a widely-loved or even widely-viewed movie. It feels like it was designed from top to bottom for the cult crowd, and is likely to turn off most everyone else. After all, it basically depicts an insane murderer as the good guy and does at times seem to make light both of murder and of mental disabilities. Still, for its unabashed strangeness and its unique exploration of the human mind, The Voices is an easily recommendation for those with a resistance for high-quirk (ex: Being John Malkovich), or those who are just bored of current comedy trends and want something with a more challenging bite.
Score: 3.5 out of 5