Don’t let the trailers dupe you into thinking that director Marjane Satrapi’s latest film, The Voices, is an updated version of Dr. Doolittle. Instead, this dark comedy—and we use that descriptor lightly, mostly due to the presence of Mr. Whiskers the talking cat and Bosco, his equally chatty canine counterpart—is a genre-blending exploration of mental illness and murder, every one of its facets, from theme to tone to imagination, ratcheted up to the nth degree.
Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is the new shipping guy at the Milton Fixtures Factory, the hub of activity in a small, nondescript American town. His coworkers think he’s a harmless oddball, but Jerry’s issues run deep. Not only does he attend court-appointed sessions with a psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver), but at home he holds lengthy debates with the good-natured Bosco and the evil, foul-mouthed Mr. Whiskers (who of course speaks with a Scottish brogue). Reynolds voices both animals, which is fitting, considering the nature of his character’s psychological issues.
With such an angelic face, Jerry seems harmless enough when he joins the women in the factory’s accounting department—Fiona (Gemma Arterton), Lisa (Anna Kendrick) and Alison (Ella Smith)—for a drink. He sips his orange juice, eats whatever food his companions can’t finish, and occasionally offers a conversation-stopper like “I know karate.” He does this because of his crush on Fiona, an attraction which permeates into his delusions, where she’s revealed as a goddess-like figure, her hair blowing in the wind like that of Botticelli’s Venus, surrounded by animated butterflies. It’s not until Fiona stands him up for a date at his favorite Chinese restaurant—which features a floor show starring a Chinese Elvis impersonator/martial arts expert—that Jerry’s psyche takes a turn into Ted Bundy territory. In the nightly debates with his pets, Jerry struggles with whether or not to indulge in some of his bloodier tendencies.
Several flashback scenes dig into Jerry’s childhood, wherein he’s pit between a violent stepfather and a mentally ill mother, who also hears voices. A disturbing, almost unimaginable scene between mother and son alters both their lives, clearly attempting to explain why Jerry’s past is prologue to his current psychosis. When Jerry later shares a tender moment with Lisa at his family’s now-abandoned house, for once Jerry has hope that he may not have to fight his demons alone, but it’s not until Lisa surprises him at his apartment that she truly glimpses the depths of his illness.
Satrapi, whose first feature was the well-received animated adaptation of her graphic novel Persepolis (2007), gives into whim and employs several elements of whimsy in The Voices. In addition to talking animals, garrulous disembodied heads and the occasional emergence of animated butterflies, Satrapi choreographs a full-fledged, song-and-dance number in the film’s final act which predominantly has the cast performing with Jesus. It’s a moment of levity that balances out the gruesomeness of many of the film’s harder-to-stomach scenes, but at the end of the film, there are far too little like it.
The production design by Udo Kramer, coupled with costume design by Bettina Helmi, adds shocks of pink and bright colors to drab settings and uniforms, developing an intriguing visual contrast. Look especially to Jerry’s house: In his reality, he lives in an airy, tidy bachelor pad, but in actuality, his apartment could serve as a case study for serial killers and hoarders, with stacks of filled Tupperware containers, rotting food, streaks of blood and vents covered with trash bags or aluminum characterizing and cluttering his personal space.
While Arterton (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Quantum of Solace) has little to do but serve as the de facto office mean girl and Jerry’s unrequited crush, Kendrick (Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect) has more opportunities to stretch her range onscreen, swerving from a caring coworker and friend to the unlucky witness to Jerry’s secrets. In the end, however, The Voices belongs to Reynolds, and he impressively fills the complex role he’s taken, managing to earn the audience’s empathy even when his character gives into his basest urges. It’s remarkable to watch Reynolds shift expressions seemingly with ease, from a countenance of childlike wonder one minute, to a teary, tortured soul the next.
Likewise, the changes in tone throughout the film are jarring—from lighter fare to much darker and more violent material, Jerry’s suffering from delusions and schizophrenia becoming a visceral experience—yet, while effective, such a dynamic can become dizzying, wearying even. It’s unfair to describe the film as an outright comedy, since it contains few moments of real mirth; The Voices is more aligned with the horror genre—not only because of the main character’s murderous proclivities, but because it highlights the insidious nature of the big sadness and bigger terror that lurks in small communities, in small apartments, inside our heads.
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Writer: Michael R. Perry
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith
Release Date: Feb. 6, 2015 (limited release and VOD)
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.