By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
We let millions of the furry little creatures into our homes, and the internet adores them. Yet put a cat next to a dog on screen and suddenly they become the villain. That’s certainly how Jerry Hickfang sees it in Marjane Satrapi’s unevenly energetic black comedy. Prone to conversations with imaginary voices, his friendly dog Bosco gees him up while cat Mr. Whiskers urges killing sprees in a Scottish accent. The Voices certainly does its own thing, and if the constant shifts in tone squander the manic energy of Ryan Reynolds’ performance (he voices the main character and the animals), there’s still plenty of disturbing charm.
Much of the heavy lifting falls on Reynolds’ shoulders. An isolated man with a long history of mental illness and a tragic past, Jerry is rebuilding his life working in the packing room at a toilet factory somewhere in the middle of nowhere. There are points early on when Satrapi’s film, working from Michael Perry’s screenplay, teases by hinting at a shift into romantic drama. Initially, Jerry spends his time pursuing bored office worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton), and when he’s put on the organising committee for the company picnic, the perfect opportunity to woo her presents itself.
It’s in the wooing that everything goes wrong. A little midnight car journey ends in a bloodbath when a deer crashes through the window. Never a man to allow suffering, and urged on by the poor creature, Jerry does what he must, much to Fiona’s horror. From here, the oddball world he inhabits takes on a significantly darker hue as heads begin to line up in the fridge, chatting away pleasantly, and body parts are unceremoniously hacked into Tupperware.
The Voices is grisly and gore infested without stumbling into actual horror. This is Reynolds’ work, the actor demonstrating an impressive line in childish excitement. Much of the disaster unfolding around him is accidental, and his understanding is clearly limited. In intense interactions with colleagues, bizarre non-sequiturs, and the many conversations he engages his pets in; he puts on a comic masterclass. For a chiselled leading man with a patchy early career, it shows there’s a lot more to him than first meets the eye.
It helps that he’s surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Alongside Arterton, Anna Kendrick pops up as Lisa, another colleague who has a big crush on Jerry, and Jacki Weaver tries to keep him functioning smoothly as his psychiatrist Dr. Warren. The scenes with Weaver work particularly well as Jerry tries to pretend everything is fine without actually lying. Face creasing up, body movements full of exaggerated tics, he dominates pretty much every minute the camera falls on him.
Jerry’s manic depressive energy also sits at the heart of the problems facing The Voices. It can switch from comic set pieces – a conga line around the office set to The O’Jays 1979 single Sing a Happy Song – to foulmouthed banter with Mr. Whiskers, and occasionally a move into the dark past that made Jerry the man he is with no warning. There’s even a brief foray into social commentary as Jerry debates the merits of drugs that even him out while taking away much of the joy of life.
There’s no real commitment to many of the switches, particularly those necessitating emotional depth. The darkest of reminiscences are ultimately torn down and revealed as a joke. When Jerry shows Lisa around his old family home, a distressing flashback launches, subduing the mood until it ends with a twisted gag. When it works, as it does here, it’s brilliant. Too often as the film wears on, it stops having the same effect, the constant jolts in tone draining away the highly strung energy. The final third ends up curiously flat as a result.
Satrapi, a multi-talented artist who’s moved from graphic novels to animation and now into live action in recent years, maintains enough control to hold it altogether. In a beautifully crafted world full of pink overalls and a closing song and dance number that suddenly rediscovers earlier magic, The Voices emerges as a weird and wonderful adventure. You might not want to share a car with Jerry, and you certainly don’t want to get on the wrong side of his pets, but from a distance he’s great fun. Provided you keep your head.
The Voices is on general release from Friday 20th March.