Marjane Satrapi’s English-language debut is the most empathetic and delicate portrayal of mental illness and murder that you will ever see, led by Reynolds’ stunning work; a shame that it shys away from making a grand statement at the last minute.
One of the few Special Features included on the DVD release of The Voices is a collection of interviews with the cast, director, writer, and producers on the film. In the very last of these interviews, producer Adi Shankar describes the film perfectly. Asked what genre he thinks the film is, he explicitly refuses to concede what it is, unlike all the other interviewees. Instead he says it is “a Marjane Satrapi film”. While the uninitiated to Satrapi’s work may not understand the context perfectly, they will be unable to deny that the film is decisively unwilling to place itself into any genre definitively. Unless the genre of ‘weird indie Sundance film’ exists on Netflix (it probably does).
In this undefinable film, Ryan Reynolds’ plays the very likeable, nervous and childishly naïve Jerry, who works in shipping for a bathroom products factory in the small and shrinking town of Milton. He has a huge crush on the English girl from accounting Fiona (Gemma Arterton), whilst it’s actually Lisa (Anna Kendrick), also from accounting, who appears to actually like him. But Jerry hears voices. They aren’t disembodied – they belong to his beloved dog Boscoe and neglected cat Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds). And while Boscoe tries to keep Jerry on a righteous path, Mr. Whiskers offers far less moral advice for Jerry and his love life, which after a terrible accident, becomes far more applicable.
It’s hard to know what else to say about The Voices, when both the trailer, poster, and DVD cover art give away just about every major plot development. Suffice it to say that for all its comedic and romantic touches, this is Psycho, from Norman Bates’ perspective. Try to imagine last year’s true genre piece The Guest, but made by Wes Anderson. The whole film has a familiarly quirky, small-town Americana running through its more specific horror touches, and some of the most obliquely dark humour. It’s not simply that the jokes are made around sensitive topics, it’s that they aren’t played for laughs most of the time. Jerry is not a mentally healthy man: he sees the world in bright colours, with talking animals and optimism painted in every corner of the frame. It’s bizarre and quite funny, but that’s his world. In one particularly traumatic scene he takes the medication that he has been neglecting and his true surroundings are revealed. The magic is gone, and the curtain pulled back, and it’s terrifying. Moments like this make the already likeable Jerry all the more understandable.
Part of this is down to Ryan Reynolds’ phenomenal performance. Channelling all his charm through a filter of arrested development, he makes Jerry so loveable, that knowing where the film will go makes it no less tense and horrifying when it arrives. This is also thanks to the script of the film, which expertly justifies Jerry’s descent into murder by his simple desire to not be alone. It also understands what the main problem is and what will actually help Jerry – not force, instruction, or medication, but empathy from the people around him. All these people, but especially Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver, are great in the film.
What holds the film back is that in its clear love of genre and more importantly, its own characters, it doesn’t land a final blow. It feels as if they were two pages away from making a grand and powerful statement about the way that mental illness is misunderstood on a systemic level, and that not all who have them are killers, and neither are the killers who have them necessarily monsters. But rather than finish those pages, it follows through on the commitment to Jerry’s perspective, ending in a credits-spanning musical number. It’s a respectable decision, but not the inspiring one. A Scottish mercenary cat, as Reynolds himself describes Mr. Whiskers’ voice on another of the DVD’s extras however, now that’s inspiring.
The Voices (2014), directed by Marjane Satrapi, is distributed in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Arrow Films, Certificate 15.