The Voices (2014)

02/17/2015  By  Sean Hanson     Comments Off

Towards the beginning of The Voices, I kept thinking, “Great, another movie that uses mental illness as a motive for murder.”

On paper, The Voices goes for low-hanging fruit: Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is an unmedicated schizophrenic who works at a toilet factory as part of a work-release deal and, through a hilarious series of misunderstandings, accidentally kills Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a co-worker he has a crush on, because he confuses her for an actual sent-from-Heaven, wings-and-all angel. He carries on full conversations with his cat Mr. Whiskers (Reynolds), who urges him to act on his sadistic impulses, and his dog Bosco (also Reynolds), who urges restraint, as any dog named Bosco would do. Soon, Fiona’s talking severed head tells him it’s lonely in the refrigerator and begs him to furnish a companion. What do severed heads talk about when Ryan Reynolds isn’t around? Their hair, I suppose.

The point is, The Voices isn’t that much different from May, Wilfred, or any number of Masters of Horror episodes in which a vast gulf emerges between reality and the way a protagonist perceives reality, and it’s never terribly original … not on the surface, anyway. What’s kept me thinking about The Voices for two weeks now is the stuff that’s under the hood. It’s honestly baffling, why I love a film that’s built on one of my least favorite tropes, so bear with me while I puzzle it out.

To begin with, I appreciate its tonal incoherence. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but trust me when I say it’s not. While previous works in this subgenre have tried to reconcile disturbing dramatic moments with dark comedy beats, director Marjane Satrapi, working from a script by TV veteran Michael R. Perry, instead allows them to coexist separately, forcing the audience to work through the scenes like a pinball in some deranged machine. There are moments of broad comedy (see: talking pets) followed by moments from some family nightmare about mental illness, all stretched around and filtered through the kind of candy-colored aesthetic that informed The Stepford Wives remake. It’s a directorial choice that keeps us off-balance but close enough to sympathize with Jerry, even as he does some pretty appalling things. It would be much easier to judge Jerry and disconnect from the film if we weren’t swept up in his instability.

For his part, Reynolds goes a long way towards selling his character. For a guy who made his name by playing smart-asses, it’s easy to forget what he can do with the right material. Every few years, he seems to challenge himself with a meaty role: three distinct but similar characters in The Nines, the claustrophobic kidnapping victim who must single-handedly hold our attention for all 95 minutes of Buried, and now, a schizophrenic factory worker who spends most of the movie crying, being awkward and slightly menacing, or wrestling with his own conscience and history. It’s a sensitive, touching portrayal — one at odds with the genre’s tendency to reduce these characters to nutjob killers — enhanced by a wonderful supporting cast that includes Anna Kendrick, who’s back in 50/50 territory, and Jacki Weaver, who gets the film’s most wonderful moment as a therapist forced to examine her own demons.

But the third and most elusive reason to like this movie is its attention to detail. For a film that works so hard to rewrite sentences and hide its plagiarism, there are tiny moments of genius that add to its charm: the murderous cat has a Scottish accent (and he’s actually funny), Fiona cheerfully conforms to British stereotypes because she exists only as a part of Jerry after her beheading, the toilet factory that’s so pink and spotless is our first indication that Jerry is an unreliable narrator, the talking deer that looked like it just walked out of Antichrist, its subtle critique of America’s mental health care system, etc.

The Voices is that rare horror-comedy that’s equally funny and horrific — maybe not scary, but damned horrific in a way that will dog viewers for weeks to follow.

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