I’m still not sure what to make of The Voices, an oddity starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian graphic novelist turned director after the animated Persepolis and live-action Chicken with Plums. I’m not certain what she and screenwriter Michael R. Perry were going for with this tale, which veers all over the map between comedy, romance, satire, and quite gruesome horror with varying degrees of success and failure. Reynolds gives an admittedly brave performance but the movie’s hard tonal shifts create a feeling that no one has a firm grasp on what kind of movie they’re making, least of all Satrapi.
Reynolds stars as Jerry, a man who lives in the pastel-infected suburban town of Milton and works in its toilet and tub factory before spends his time at home with his dog and cat. He also visits his psychiatrist (Jackie Weaver) and it’s from these meetings – where she admonishes him to take his meds — that we glean Jerry may have a troubled past. Otherwise, he seems like a nice but socially awkward man who enjoys his job, has a crush on the self-described “office hottie” (Gemma Arterton) who shuns him completely, and barely pays attention to the perky girl from accounting (Anna Kendrick) who has eyes for him.
The problem is that when Jerry talks to his pets, they talk back, and it soon becomes apparent that the dog and cat represent the better and darker angels of Jerry’s fractured mind, respectively. It’s their voices that Jerry is supposed to shut out by taking his medication, with the cat nudging him toward homicidal behavior. Yes, Jerry is a serial killer, although all his murders seem to be the result of “accidents” that he has no way of controlling; at least that’s how he sees it. From flashbacks, we learn the roots of his disorder and they are as heartbreaking – if somewhat shallow — as one might expect.
Reynolds is Satrapi’s secret weapon here: he’s terrific and eminently watchable as Jerry, whose discomfiture yet seemingly genuine naivete goes a long way toward making us sympathize with the fact that he is one severely screwed up human being. Kendrick is also quite touching as a recent divorcee who’s simply looking for love and companionship and gets more than she could have ever bargained for. Arterton and the rest of the cast are given less to work with, and consequently don’t leave much of a lasting impression except when parts of some of them end up in Jerry’s fridge as remains that he also holds light-hearted conversations with.
One of the best and most disturbing scenes in the movie comes when Jerry does manage to take his meds once – and sees himself and his living conditions for what they really are (not taking the meds allows his disturbed brain to see the world as he presumably wants to see it). A similar scene later on, when one of Jerry’s victims enters his house, is equally unnerving – also because we know the subsequent, sad confrontation between the person and a sincerely apologetic Jerry won’t end well at all. It’s these horror sequences that are the strongest in The Voices, although their impact is lessened considerably by the jokier, jauntier scenes that surround them.
Half of the movie is a grim portrait of a man suffering from horrific impulses and their aftermath while the rest of it is either superficially cheeky or satiric (it even has a musical number at the end, which apparently is now a requirement if Anna Kendrick is in the cast). It’s as if Satrapi had her own talking animals curled up on either side of her director’s chair, one urging her to goof off with the material and the other chastising her to take it more seriously. I know which movie I would prefer to see, and I wish that voice had won the argument instead of splitting the difference.
The Voices is out in theaters and on VOD Friday (Feb. 6).