The Voices (2014), directed by Marjane Satrapi, who is best known for her 2007 animated Iranian film Persepolis, is a strange film that’s difficult to categorize, love or hate (at least for this reviewer). It can be seen as an original, very dark comedy about a superficially likable guy named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) who happens to be schizophrenic and turns into a serial killer. It can be appreciated for its absurdist humor or criticized for its gory scenes, portrayal of mental illness and for the seemingly lighthearted way that it depicts violence against women.
Apart from anything else, I did find aspects of The Voices quite funny. Specifically, the way Jerry hears his cat and dog talking to him, playing the parts of angel and devil (with the cat, naturally, being the latter). Reynolds himself does a moderately good job of doing these voices, with the cat having a Scottish brogue and the large bull mastiff speaking in a cartoon-dog southern drawl. We actually see the cat’s mouth moving as he “talks” to Jerry and urges him to commit all kinds of hideous crimes.
There is nothing realistic about The Voices, even apart from talking pets. Jerry is a man with a history of mental illness who, it seems, has recently been released from an institution. He sees a therapist regularly, played by Jacki Weaver. He lives in a depressing industrial city called Milton that is somewhere in the middle of the country. Jerry inexplicably inhabits an entire building, a former bowling alley. While this makes for a convenient headquarters for a serial killer, it is hardly credible that a man who works in a warehouse is able to rent out an entire building all by himself.
Jerry’s workplace is similarly bizarre and off-kilter, with employees who wear pink uniforms and, at least in one scene, dance in musical style numbers around the factory. There is even a local Chinese restaurant that features unlikely Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators. One feature of The Voices is that we are meant to notice a large gap between reality as perceived by Jerry (when he is off his meds) and the real, far less colorful and hopeful world.
Jerry’s descent into complete madness begins when his romantic advances towards attractive co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton) are not reciprocated. Despite this, the scene in which he brutally murders her does not really make sense, even given Jerry’s mental state. He is clearly infatuated with Fiona and she is actually being nice to him, albeit in a dishonest way, up until the point when things go wrong. After they hit a deer, Jerry inexplicably turns violent against Fiona.
The most complex relationship in the film involves Jerry and another co-worker, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), the only character who genuinely likes Jerry. The begin a romance, but Jerry’s evil cat Mr. Whiskers, along with Fiona’s head (which Jerry now keeps in the freezer) are urging him to continue his killing spree. Funny, sick or just plain bizarre stuff, depending on your tastes.
We get quite a few glimpses into Jerry’s back story; his mother was also mentally ill and also heard voices. However, as any mental health advocate will tell you, most schizophrenics are not violent, especially not in the premeditated way that Jerry’s actions ultimately unfold. Perhaps they were thinking of the real life infamous killer Son of Sam, who supposedly followed orders given by his dog when he went on a killing spree in the 1970s.
It’s hard to say what director Satrapi and writer Michael Perry were trying to achieve with The Voices. The focus on Jerry’s tragic childhood and the absurdly upbeat and surreal ending set in heaven with a dancing Jesus, seem to be urging us to sympathize with this unlikely but not entirely unlikable serial killer. At the same time, it’s impossible for any remotely sane person to justify anything Jerry does in this film.
Critical response to The Voices has been interesting and extremely conflicted. I read one review that called the film “perfect,” which seems like excessive praise. On the other hand, I think it’s worth reading a vitriolic but insightful feminist critique of the film by Maryann Johanson, on The Flick Philosopher. I’m not sure if I agree with her conclusion that the film is thoroughly misogynistic, but it does bring up some salient points about the way violence against women is trivialized.
I’m not a big believer in quantifying films with stars (or, even worse, using a binary, absurdly simplistic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” system), which is why I don’t use stars on any of my reviews. However, just to put things in perspective, if I were rating The Voices on Netlfix or Amazon I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a film that’s darkly funny, interesting, disturbing and extremely uneven.