“Black Comedy” and “Offbeat” are two terms that get bandied about quite often on the film circuit, to the point that they’ve come to represent any film that doesn’t conform to the strictest of genre conventions. In a world where Horrible Bosses is marketed as a black comedy, we can all be pretty certain the term has lost all meaning. So when a film like The Voices comes along, it demands new terminology, something like: complete-and-utter-absence-of-light comedy.
Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) stars as Jerry, an awkward, mentally fragile factory worker at a toilet company in the rural town of Milton, which happens to have its own jingle played at the beginning of the film. Out of prison on work release, he attends regular sessions with his psychiatrist, Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook). Jerry lives his life in something of a Technicolor haze, attempting to court his office crush, Fiona (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace) and completely ignoring the affections of her co-worker, Lisa (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect).
Sounds like a simple enough premise. But there’s also his dog Bosco, and his cat, Mr. Whiskers, who talk to him. Jerry hears voices, just the way his mother used to. He has pills that shut them out, but when he takes them, his bright world turns dark and he feels completely alone. He rarely takes his medication. Bosco serves as Jerry’s friend and companion, reminding him often that he’s a good boy. Mr. Whiskers has a slightly different worldview and, being a cat, his solutions to Jerry’s problems tend to be on the more homicidal end of the spectrum.
The less revealed about The Voices, the better. There are some genuinely dark and surprising twists that the film doles out over its wild 100 minutes that are best experienced if left completely off guard. Suffice it to say that things start to get bloody and strange. One thing that is clear is that screenwriter Michael Perry, a longtime television writer and co-writer of Saw II, has a very, very dark sense of humor. Perry’s involvement makes sense, given his background in offbeat horror. A little more surprising is the film’s director, Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian-born French director and graphic novelist best known for the Oscar nominated Persepolis. Satrapi’s first dive into horror is revelatory, grabbing the subject matter and ratcheting up the insanity to 11.
Ryan Reynolds is genuinely surprising as Jerry. Weaponizing his good looks and parodying his usual sense of wry wit, Reynolds turns in a performance that is genuinely unsettling. But perhaps more impressive than his ability to make us squirm is his ability to make of empathize with Jerry. This is a role that could easily have fallen into self-parody and hyperbole. Being able to pull off an argument with a swearing Irish cat and having it be heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time is deserving of high praise. Gemma Arterton is perfectly cast and Anna Kendrick remains as cute as a button while being able to shoulder some of the film’s most demanding scenes.
The Voices is something of a tonal mess, but somehow that’s part of its charm. It swings rapidly, and sometimes jarringly, between moments of laugh out loud hilarity and moments that are genuinely disturbing. Satrapi handles these shifts with expert care, and there’s always a feeling like it’s all part of some profoundly mad plan. Perry’s script keeps things escalating right up to its end, and yet the core narrative of a man lost inside his own mind keeps its feet stuck in the murky ground. When the credits roll, it’s genuinely difficult to know how to feel about what you just saw, and there are not nearly enough films that can achieve that.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
The Voices is not for everybody. It’s violent and unapologetic and occasionally profoundly disturbing. It’s also really funny and unusually intelligent. If Ryan Reynolds continues to make artistic gambles like this one, we might all soon forget about The Green Lantern. Satrapi continues to be an exciting director to watch, and I hope she returns to the genre. Any moron who still thinks women cannot direct horror should be directed to The Voices. It’s an uncomfortable film. But this is a complete-and-utter-absence-of-light comedy, and uncomfortable is good.