Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi’s first US film is a horror comedy just distinct enough to overcome the familiarity of its serial killing subject matter. Much of this is down to Satrapi’s playful, vibrant style, but credit is also due to never-a-box-office-star-no matter-how-hard-he-tries Ryan Reynolds. His placid schizophrenic Jerry isn’t a showstopper in and off himself but, in combination with his handful of supporting vocal performances, most notably those of Jerry’s pets, dog Bosco and cat Mr Whiskers, Reynolds infuses The Voices with an offbeat energy that perfectly complements his director’s offbeat tone and visuals.
Screenwriter Michael R Perry’s form is mostly in TV, including series both quirky (Eerie, Indiana) and supernatural (American Gothic, Millennium, The Dead Zone). Not that many of them suggest the facility for jet-black humour and clarity of voice found here. His choice to centre on a schizophrenic (off his meds and) entering dangerously psychotic territory is one commonly plundered in the horror genre. One could reel of dozens of titles that fit the bill, even just since the turn of the millennium, where characters’ internal voices and scenarios are physically manifested (Shutter Island, Black Swan, Bug, and on the more “serious”, as in seriously shitty, end of things A Beautiful Mind). The Voices fits more into the heightened territory of Filth or Donnie Darko, where a wicked streak of humour informs its protagonist’s meltdown.
Jerry is likeable but doofish and doormatish, a bit of a joke to his fellow workers, upbeat and overeager to help and please; in the early scenes he comes across as a caricature of earnest vacuity. His world is primary coloured, although his apartment is hermetic and darkened, inhabited by Scottish cat Mr Whiskers, who harangues him for his failings and foolishness (he’s “so hopelessly pathetic”) and dog Bosco, who encourages him to be behave morally and be a good person. Jerry, who also cuts a mysterious figure, develops feelings for fellow employee Fiona (Gemma Arterton), but a series of events including her standing him up and hitting a deer leads to Jerry accidentally killing her (although it was on his mind anyway). This act precipitates a further descent into a free rein for his darker impulses (as personified by Mr Whiskers) and ignoring his better ones (Bosco).
Bosco: I earned the right to be called a good boy.
Mr Whiskers: You earned the right to be hit by a minivan.
This tug of impulses things isn’t such an original device; historically it was more commonly personified in characters with multiple personality disorder. And benign Bosco isn’t on his own a particularly memorable character. Mr Whiskers, however establishes the flippant, knowing attitude of the picture. A vituperative, bloody-minded and vindictive feline, he is constantly barracking and berating Jerry (“In her eyes, you are a ridiculous peasant” he says of Fiona), while presenting Jerry’s worse impulses as perfectly natural (“The only time I felt alive is when I’m killing”).
Mainly, though Mr Whiskers is absolutely hilarious, as if Dexter was accompanied by a goading kitty rather than a beneficent parent. Foul-mouthed (“Where the fuck’s my food, fuck-face?” he demands when Jerry comes home after being out all night) and devil’s advo-cat, he incites Jerry then gloats at his failures (“That’s you, Jerry. Can I have an autograph?” he requests after the murder of Fiona is described on the news as the work of a serial killer).
If there’s sly, provocative intent here, it’s voiced in Jerry’s world being an insulated and inviting place when he’s not on his meds. When he is, it becomes a harsh, cold and miserable environment. He’s pets no longer communicate. The head in the fridge really is just a head in the fridge, not Fiona willing to converse with Jerry. The picture has a mirthfully ambivalent approach to prescribed treatments; on them, Jerry leaves in a dead, empty world. Off them, well he may be prone to killing a few people, but isn’t he contented?
There’s also the criticism of his mental healthcare treatment, as signified by his relationship with his psychotherapist Dr Warren. Jackie Weaver marvellously embodies her as a well-meaning but ineffectual figure (notably, she pleads with the police not to kill Jerry, but does nothing on repeated occasions when Jerry admits he’s off his pills). Jerry never gets any answers in his therapy until he kidnaps and threatens her. As Mr Whiskers notes, “Great job she’s doing. You’re the picture of mental health”.
Satrapi’s approach follows in the line of black comedies of a murderous bent that stretches from Kind Hearts and Coronets to Danny De Vito’s ‘80s directorial efforts, to Heathers, Serial Mom and American Psycho. This is a picture suggesting a director (or writer) familiar with both Sam Raimi and trad horror clichés (a talking deer, a woman in a negligee running through a woods at night), and keen to emphasise the more colourful, cartoonish elements (the butterflies Jerry sees, Fiona’s appearances as an angel) while eschewing any overt gore.
Indeed, there’s a running theme of religious imagery, extending from Jerry’s flashbacks to childhood and a mother who talks about angels to Jerry’s own interest (“The fourth angel is Lucifer” he tells Fiona of The Bible’s named angels besides Raphael – presumably Jerry has studied The Book of Tobit – Michael and Gabriel). This culminates in a cheesy end credits scene featuring heavenly void for a song and dance number with a stoner Jesus driving a forklift truck. I don’t think it quite delivers. It isn’t especially clever of witty and feels rather obvious, and a little clumsy given the line treaded before this, but it certainly underlines the picture’s ambivalent morality; Jerry can kill whoever he likes and it doesn’t matter once he gets to “heaven”. Even Mr Whiskers expresses fondness for Bosco in the end.
Reynolds, who has an unfortunately slightly cross-eyed quality that makes him perfect for a psycho, is undeniably a quick wit but has been determinedly resistant to audiences warming to him or finding him charming over the years. He’s good throughout, though obviously really scores as Mr Whiskers. By comparison, next year’s Deadpool looks as if it will be pure adolescent one-liners and cheap shots (so probably quite successful). Arterton is fine, although playing up her Englishness gets a little tiresome. Anna Kendrick is also decent, although her character Lisa (a future fridge resident) has little substance.
The Voices is suitably twisted and flourishes several narrative conceits with distinction, but in the end, it might be a little too recognisable and reliable in form to attain the status of cult classic. The best of the genre have a readily identifiable satirical intent (the aforementioned Serial Mom and Heathers), but Satrapi presents the markers (Jerry presents the appearance of normality, and that’s enough for most people) without ever feeling inclined to wrestle the material into something more potent.