Jerry Hickfang hears voices, and that’s not a good thing. Not disembodied voices, mind you, as they appear to originate from his sassy Scottish cat and doofy but lovable dog. But Jerry Hickfang still hears voices, and that’s not a good thing – especially because one of his pets is encouraging him to kill.
Filmmaker Marjane Satrapi’s English-language debut, The Voices, stars Ryan Reynolds in a decidedly different and offbeat role for the actor, as a deeply disturbed factory worker who sees things that just aren’t there and does things that have wide-ranging (and real!) implications. When we first meet Jerry, he simply seems like a nice guy (at one point, a co-worker blithely asks him, “Are you running for office, Jerry?” because that’s exactly how his can-do spirit makes him sound). He’s clearly isolated, but he’s also clearly trying to make his life work for him – from his pin-neat apartment to his loving relationship with his dog Bosco (voiced by Michael S. Ruscheinsky) to his attempts at modern romance with office looker Fiona (Gemma Arterton). Even his therapist (Jacki Weaver) tells Jerry that he’s a likable guy!
But there’s the issue of the therapist, someone who treats Jerry with kid gloves, but who has also been appointed by the Department of Corrections – Jerry did something bad once, and while he may be likable and sweet now, there’s something lurking in the past.
Satrapi’s animated background (she previously directed both Persepolis and Chicken With Plums) is obvious in the film, and The Voices has a poppy, comic book-y visual sense that translates incredibly well to the big screen. The live-action film may not be ripped from the pages of a comic book, but it looks as if it was, and that adds tremendous visual interest and a signature flair to the feature. The Voices also employs some traditional horror tropes and shot set-ups, adding to its consistently engaging look and feel. Satrapi previously used her animated tales to tell hefty, emotional stories, and while she’s chosen to go the non-animated route this time, that visual style certainly helps dilute the heavy nature of the film – at least for a time.
The Voices has a troublesome approach to mental illness – basically, it seems to think that people like Jerry are incurable, yet still innocent. While Jerry’s life appears to be held together, once he starts reaching out for human connection, we realize how ill he actually is. Attempting to woo Fiona goes over incredibly badly (like, “oops, I accidentally killed you in a really bloody way!” badly), and it spirals outward until Jerry sheds his innocence and becomes a straight up serial killer.
As the veil is lifted off Jerry’s (maybe?) true nature, Satrapi does the same within the context of the film – revealing that we’ve been living inside Jerry’s head, and his seemingly ordered life is a product of not taking his medication, his own delusions leading the way. Jerry’s perception of things without his prescription isn’t clouded – it’s pure sunshine – and when we see what things really look like (especially in his seemingly neat apartment) when he’s back on the meds, it’s terrifying and very clever. Surrounded by trash and free of the voices of his pets, Jerry may be getting “better” in a medical sense, but things are certainly worse for him.
Reynolds does solid work here as Jerry, and the film seems like something he must have sought out in order to do something entirely different and break some perceptions about him. Jerry is a disturbed but sympathetic character, and Reynolds mostly walks that line well, finding the weird gray area between “sweet and harmless” and “creepy and dangerous” and just setting up camp there. Arterton is fine as the foxy Fiona, though she’s not given much to do in the way of character expansion. Anna Kendrick, however, shows up as Jerry’s other ill-fated office lover, Lisa, and she quite cannily acts as the audience surrogate, initially approaching Jerry with care and interest before collapsing into nothing but nerves when his actual nature is revealed.
The Voices may be darkly funny – it’s about a serial killer, after all! – but its final spiral into true darkness is unsettling and unanswerable. For much of the film’s runtime, Satrapi and her cast walk a fine line between genres, but its final scenes make some strange diversions, and the final message of the film is a bothersome one – even serial killers have good intentions, especially when their cat is making them do it, and definitely when even a film about murder and mayhem can wrap up with a peppy musical number.
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