There’s more than a touch of Michael Powell’s 1960 thriller Peeping Tom to The Voices, in which Ryan Reynolds stars as troubled factory worker Jerry Hickfang. Like Peeping Tom’s protagonist, Mark Lewis, Jerry’s a disturbed man trying (and failing) to keep a lid on his murderous instincts.
Jerry’s internal psychodramas are played out through his pets, with his cat, Mr Whiskers, serving as the predatory part of his nature and his dog Bosco being his moist-eyed conscience. Artist and director Marjane Satrapi’s film is disconcerting from the very first scene, as we’re given a guided tour of Milton Fixtures & Faucets, a company which specialises in fabricating cheap bathroom appliances, and where employees wear hideous pink overalls – clothing that matches the factory’s lurid colour scheme. We quickly learn that everything we’re seeing is filtered through Jerry’s distorted view of reality, which turns even the most grotesque scenarios into a whimsical dreamland.
Outwardly, Jerry’s a slightly awkward yet chipper young man, keen to help out with the organisation of a company picnic and quick with well-meaning but slightly inappropriate compliments to his work colleagues. He’s handsome enough that office worker Lisa (Anna Kendrick) has a crush on him, but then again, brassy British co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton) seems to find him a bit creepy.
In private, however, Jerry’s boyish grin hides a disturbing past and an even more worrying appetite for murder. And as the goading of his cat is joined by a growing Greek chorus of other voices urging him to kill, Jerry finds the allure of slaughter ever more difficult to resist. What follows is a kind of twisted mix of romance and psychodrama, as Jerry pursues his desire for a soul mate while simultaneously fleeing his darker instincts.
This is a highly unusual role for Reynolds, who usually plays heroic types even in his more low-budget projects, such as Rodrigo Cortez’s superb one-location thriller, Buried. Here, he’s in the kind of territory occupied by Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and his naive charm is in the spirit of that performance, with maybe an added splash of the sinister cartoonishness Jim Carrey brought to his leading turn in The Cable Guy.
Even as we’re adjusting to seeing the world through Jerry’s eyes, Satrapi (the artist, writer and co-director behind the autobiographical Persepolis) unsettles us further with abrupt splashes of gore and jabs of discomfiting sound design. Reynolds is undoubtedly effective in the role, moving effortlessly between charm and menace, and even providing the voices of his foul-mouthed cat (with a slightly shaky Scottish accent) and soppy, drawling dog. The supporting cast are perfectly decent, and seem to be having a great time through all the splatter; the standout is Jackie Weaver, who plays Jerry’s psychiatrist. She’s only in the movie for three or four scenes, but makes a real impact.
Sporadically funny as a comedy (the cat’s sweary outbursts are good value), The Voices stumbles when it comes to drama and suspense. There’s much in here we’ve seen before, from Peeping Tom and Psycho to Maniac, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer and Manhunter, but The Voices suffers when compared to those films. As a character piece, The Voices is content to fall back on an understanding of mental illness as depicted in other horror movies and thrillers, making the story beats all-too easy to predict.
There are odd moments where The Voices does work as a horror: two flashbacks to Jerry’s childhood are well designed (Satrapi’s talent as an artist really come to the fore in scenes like this) and quite disturbing as a result. But the self-consciously quirky approach also makes it a difficult film to become immersed in. What are we supposed to make of a film designed with the twee preciousness of Pushing Daisies that at the same time liberally coats the screen with blood? Are we meant to empathise with Jerry just because he feels guilty for what he’s done afterwards?
Horror comedy’s tricky to get right at the best of times. Reynolds and the rest of the cast do their best with the material, and appear to have enjoyed making it. But The Voices is, like its protagonist, a schizophrenic movie, the violent side of its nature failing to reconcile with its easy laughs. Instead, the two cancel each other out, resulting in a film that sporadically entertains in the moment, but exits the mind before the theatre lights have gone up.
The Voices is out in UK cinemas on the 20th March.
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