The Voices is tonally messy, sporadically funny, and more than a little uncomfortable… these are all very good things.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Stop. If I had my way, this review would consist solely of one sentence that reads “You should go and see The Voices immediately” and then you would go and do exactly that. See, The Voices is a film that is most definitely not for everybody’s tastes but one of the main reasons why it was very much to my taste sort of constitutes a spoiler. Further than that, I feel that the full impact of The Voices is best appreciated if you go in, not only with no plot knowledge, with no expectations or pre-conceptions. Basically, you should really see The Voices. I won’t tell you why, but you really, really should.
Unfortunately, this site requires a bit more critical reasoning in their film reviews than that. So, this is your out. After this paragraph, I will start talking about The Voices and why it is brilliant. This will also involve spoiling a key plot point that occurs a little over half an hour into the movie but has been plastered all over the trailers anyway. If you want to heed my advice, then stop reading and go and see The Voices. Otherwise, we shall commence the act of reviewing in 3… 2…
I have made peace with the fact that Marjane Satrapi is never going to surpass Persepolis. I mean, how can she? Persepolis is practically an autobiography, and that kind of personal investment and candid openness in a project is something that one can’t really replicate after that first instance, especially when that instance is as emotionally draining as Persepolis is. Therefore, at no point in this review will I be comparing The Voices to Persepolis. They’re from the same director – well, co-director in Persepolis’ case – but they’re not in any way comparable to each other. Well, also except for the fact that they’re both brilliant.
Yes, in stepping way out of her comfort zone – this is her first English-language feature and it’s a black as all hell horror dramedy hybrid – Marjane Satrapi has only gone and made quite possibly the best film that I have seen so far this year. Folks, I adore The Voices. From its opening sequence showcasing just how much of a rural dead-end nowhere that the film’s location, Milton, is, backed by an excessively jaunty theme tune for said town, to its self-consciously pathos-destroying and out-of-place final scene, this film had me in its vice-like grip and refused to let me go. It’s about as consistent as its protagonist, but, dammit all, I was enthralled and left the cinema in high peppy spirits.
Who is the film’s protagonist? That would be Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds), a man in his late-20s/early-30s who works at a bathtub factory and who just wants to fit in, be loved, and be kind to others. Jerry, however, suffers from really bad schizophrenia that causes him to be very socially awkward and self-conscious, alienating most of his co-workers and especially his crush Fiona (Gemma Arterton), and, more importantly, to hold lengthy conversations with his pets. The dog, Bosco, is basically a kindly and supportive cheerleader who tells Jerry everything he wants to hear; the cat, Mr. Whiskers, is the one that constantly re-enforces Jerry’s worst fears and anxieties, as well as filling his head with violent fantasies. Jerry’s therapist (Jacki Weaver) would like for him to start taking his pills, but the pills reveal to Jerry just how lonely and miserable his life is which for him is even worse.
Then, one night, after a series of unfortunate events, Jerry accidentally stabs and then mercy kills Fiona.
From that scene on, The Voices reveals itself to be a serial killer – although whether Jerry will agree with Mr. Whiskers’ assessment that he likes killing and kill again forms the brunt of the movie’s conflict, the police waste no time in pegging their suspect as a “serial killer” – horror movie from the perspective of the serial killer. Satrapi stages scenes like the accidental killing of Fiona near-indistinguishably from the real thing, but they gain a different tone and different lease of life thanks to re-focusing our point of view on the guy committing the killings and his inner struggle with reconciling whether he’s really a good or bad person. Instead of having the tension be one-sided or even non-existent, every instance of Jerry digging himself deeper into his hole has sympathetic tension both for those caught up in it and Jerry himself, a sincerely likeable man who I just wanted to reach out and hug and tell him that everything will be fine.
Naturally, this all runs the risk of going very, very wrong. For some viewers, it undoubtedly will have. The tone lurches wildly and often without warning from horror, to comedy, to drama, to romance, to some combination of the lot and, although the inconsistency is sort of the point, this is not going to be to everyone’s tastes. The actually funny moments are relatively rare and major laughs are near-non-existent, the film can be legitimately creepy and disturbing but it’s not exactly ‘scary’ in the traditional sense, the constant unease and fear over Jerry’s sanity undercuts any legitimately romantic sequences, and the constant whiplash between genres may dilute the drama for viewers who can’t keep up with or wrap their heads around the chaotic tonal shifts.
For me, this never happened, and for three specific reasons. The first is that the script, from Michael R. Perry who also co-wrote Paranormal Activity 2, is rock solid. The film has to pivot around Jerry and Perry never loses sight of Jerry and his inner conflict. He never makes Jerry a monster simply for dramas-sake, there is always a deep-rooted character reason for anything that Jerry does, and he keeps Jerry somewhat sympathetic right up until the very end. But he also doesn’t skimp out on the other cast members either, especially in the case of Jerry’s co-worker Lisa (an unreally adorable Anna Kendrick) whose relationship with Jerry forms another backbone throughout the film and gets a surprisingly emotional payoff thanks to Perry developing her just as much as he does Jerry.
The second is in Ryan Reynolds’ utterly outstanding performance as Jerry. From the outset, Jerry is clearly… off, but not in the offensive or parodic way that such an idea runs the risk of being, and that’s because Reynolds gets the character. Jerry is clearly different and a bit disturbed, but Reynolds never loses sight of the humanity and kind-hearted nature at the root of him, pitching his performance in such a way that that side of him is amplified or de-emphasised depending on whose point of view the scene is taking but never completely lost. He’s clearly relishing the part, and especially having the time of his life providing the voices of Bosco and Mr. Whiskers, which is what helps sell it. There is not one trace of smugness or cockiness in his work here; he is Jerry and he is phenomenal.
And third is Marjane Satrapi’s direction. Separate from her work here, those prior pluses could very quickly be turned into negatives. The script’s tonal hot potato could have under or over-cooked certain aspects in a lesser director’s hands and caused the film to go completely off-the-rails, whilst Reynolds’ performance could have been totally squandered by a director who isn’t working in-sync with him and tried to force him into something he’s not. Satrapi, however, wrangles the film’s various tonal shifts into something approaching some semblance of coherent, and seems to actively encourage Reynolds’ performance, building the core of the film around it.
She is also one hell of a visual stylist. Such an observation shouldn’t be surprising for those that managed to watch or read Persepolis, but she throws herself, and her Production Designer, Udo Kramer, into the task of getting us into the head of Jerry through visual and stylistic cues. Scenes are over-and-under-lit accordingly, alternately resembling a shiny sitcom set that is at least somewhat close to ‘normal’ and a dingy disrepaired hell-hole depending on Jerry’s state of mind. A crime scene is set up like a fairy tale landscape, butterflies seem to follow Fiona wherever she goes, Milton itself is drowned in a sea of depressing greys. There’s also a legitimately horrifying sequence when Jerry actually takes his meds that gains its uncomfortable nature through exceptional set design. Satrapi’s dedication to telling the story just as much visually as she does everything else turns out to be the extra ingredient needed to make this film soar.
Again, make no mistake, this could have gone so, so wrong. In fact, for many people, it probably will still have anyway. The Voices really won’t be for everyone, its utterly schizophrenic and dark as hell nature will make sure of that. For the people who do or can get with it, though? Those people are in for a fantastic character study that’s visually dynamic, smartly written, impeccably acted, sometimes rather funny, and utterly weird. It worked for me, I’ll tell you that, and right now it might be my favourite film of the year so far. There’s plenty of time left in the year for other films to knock it from that perch, but I’ve got a very good feeling that I will still be thinking about this one long into 2015’s twilight days.