***Contains potential spoilers***
The Voices is a movie starring Ryan Reynolds where his cat and dog talk to him. Yeah, the red flags are waving already, right? In the long, regrettable history of anthropomorphised animals, no one success story particularly lingers in the mind, artistically speaking (man, Babe sure raked in the money though, didn’t it?). Yet dismissing The Voices outright might rob you of one of 2015’s more unusual cinematic experiences. Because this movie is off-the-chart strange. A volatile mix of extraordinarily offbeat humour with dark, dark drama. You have been warned; there aren’t likely to be many ‘Marmite’ experiences like this over the coming months.
Reynolds plays Jerry, worker in a small town packing plant for bathroom fittings. He’s handsome, cheery… slightly awkward in social situations. He has a crush on the English girl from accounting upstairs, Fiona (Gemma Arterton). He lives in an apartment above a disused bowling alley with his cat, Mr Whiskers and his dog, Boscoe. And, as previously mentioned, these animals talk to him. He talks to them. Reynolds provides the voices for Jerry’s pets; Mr Whiskers has an angry Scottish accent and acts as the devil on his shoulder, while Boscoe’s smoother Southern drawl is an angel of reassurance and security. Newsflash; Jerry is in therapy and he’s not taking his medication. Later on flashbacks will illuminate just how troubled Jerry’s past is. But initially The Voices seems like a plain flippant depiction of mental illness.
Yet by skewing their film through polar extremes of bright gaudiness and occasional-but-jarring cold reality, screenwriter Michael R Perry and director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) manage to capture enough truisms about human nature and introspective decline, offsetting their observations with a lurching, hurdy-gurdy tone that never lets the audience sit at ease. I can’t remember the last time I felt so on-edge in a cinema (okay I can; It Follows), trying to figure out how to settle into a film which provides little in terms of comfort or ease, despite Reynolds’ warm hug of a performance. The abundance of pastel colours only unsettles further. Satrapi takes the serial killer template (and, SPOILER, that’s where we’re headed here) and does her best to fit it through the cookie-cutter mould of the American sitcom. Don’t expect canned laughter though. The nervous chuckles of your fellow viewers will have to suffice. Satrapi’s past in graphic novels makes perfect sense for The Voices; which has some of the same formal sensibilities of Terry Zwigoff tackling Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World… albeit ratcheted up to bonkers.
Jerry is no criminal mastermind. He’s really quite a sweet guy, half of the time. Fiona takes him for granted and this hurts him. When their paths cross, fatally, it is not malice but sheer ineptitude that escalates events to the murderous. Nevertheless, having unequivocally crossed a line, the battle for Jerry’s soul is truly on. Mr Whiskers and Boscoe take their opposing stances, leaving Jerry seesawing in the middle. To further complicate his life, Jerry suddenly finds fellow employee Lisa (Anna Kendrick) showing an interest in him. With a potentially tangible romantic connection on the horizon, how will Jerry react to these further pressures on his increasingly insecure and erratic mental framework? The answer, inevitably, is pretty badly.
My experience of Reynolds is pretty limited, I must admit. Perhaps unfairly the general assumption I’ve previously come to is that he’s a solid actor of perhaps limited range. Assumptions can be wrong. Here, Reynolds surprises in a way that kindles memories of Adam Sandler’s striking work for Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love. He is wholly committed to Jerry (no pun intended), finding enough charm and nuance for us to follow him down a very, very dark path. A late scene with his therapist (Jacki Weaver) in the middle of a field even manages to evoke some universal sympathies. Elsewhere the broadly comedic side of Reynolds is allowed out of the box, not least in the film’s end-credits last hurrah. Whatever you make of the movie, you’ll stay through this section – guaranteed.
Elsewhere, Kendrick draws the most attention. Once again she seems contractually-obliged to play the sweetest character in the movie. Her crush on Jerry softens her to the realities – and dangers – of her situation. Self-deception on a much smaller scale than that which Jerry is wrestling with, granted, but it allows their furtive romance to feel genuine in a movie that shirks from such sensibilities at every other turn. Lisa is a fragile person too. Whenever Jerry teeters toward the dangerous, we feel incredibly sympathetic for her. This dynamic sustains the film through its second (arguably strongest) act, hitting a dramatic spike when she threatens to expose the truths that even Jerry continues to deny.
I’m still not convinced talking animals are a good idea. Mr Whiskers and Boscoe pleased the audience I shared for The Voices greatly (isn’t it hilarious when animals swear!), and perhaps a film as delightfully crazy as this one is the best place for them. At least they’re tone-appropriate, even if that tone amounts to barely contained hysteria. Ultimately, Satrapi’s giddy, irreverent film bristles with an undercurrent of very serious concern, which helps it to succeed. The glimpses of the real world surrounding Jerry are incredibly brief, but they’re genuinely shocking. This is a portrait of a man who has already strayed too far. His denial may be his undoing, but it’s scarily easy to sympathise with his predicament. Just how does one walk back from this?
That the facade drops only briefly brings greater questions to mind; just how much of what we’ve seen has been warped through Jerry’s perspective? How much do we manufacture our lives in order to feel comfortable living in them? What are the stories we tell ourselves, and what are the alternatives?
If The Voices has a contemporary cousin, it might be Alexandre Aja’s recent Horns. Like that movie, Satrapi’s allows a deceptively equipped actor to ground what could easily have been a very silly central premise. And, like Aja, Satrapi is gleefully unafraid to dabble into some pretty gutsy (not to mention gory) waters. Pay a visit to Jerry’s home if you dare.