Of all the things that the director of Persepolis could have gone on to make, no one could have predicted that it would be The Voices. A pitch-black horror comedy about a mentally unstable serial killer who talks to his pets, it is, if nothing else, a sure sign of Marjane Satrapi’s versatility.
Our protagonist is Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a chipper, upbeat man who works at a bathtub factory. But naturally, all is not quite as it seems, and Jerry is actually a serial killer-in-waiting whose evil cat Mr. Whiskers and benevolent dog Bosco act as the voices of his conscience. The cat tells him to murder people, while the dog tells him not to.
It’s arguably worth seeing for Reynolds’ performance alone. A good actor with an unfortunate habit of picking bad films, he gets a chance to really show off his talents as the unstable, unpredictable, bipolar Jerry. The fact that he also provides the voices for Bosco and Mr. Whiskers, who provide most of the laughs and are probably the best thing about the film, is a nice bonus. Not unlike in Pixar’s Up, the pets’ dialogue will be alarmingly believable to anyone who’s owned a cat or a dog, and Mr. Whiskers in particular is often hilarious.
And then the film suddenly slams a left turn into straight-up horror whenever one of Jerry’s dates with his co-workers (Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick, both excellent) goes bad. Going from funny animal comedy into pure serial killer horror is more than a little jarring, but there’s no denying its effectiveness, and The Voices is actually very frightening when it needs to be.
A predictable consequence of this is that it’s all over the map tonally, with the horror and the comedy never gelling as well as they do in something like Shaun Of The Dead. It’s definitely uneven, and not all of the jokes work, but out of this weird patchwork of tone a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a very ill man emerges. The fact that the film itself is so bipolar is, actually, thoroughly appropriate.
Even once the murdering begins, Jerry remains hard to think of as a villain, because Satrapi does a great job of reminding us that he’s a victim of a severe mental illness which he can do very little to control. Admittedly, his refusal to take his medication is both a major plot point and the reason why he thinks his pets are talking to him, and if he had taken them he might not have killed anyone. But almost the whole film is seen through Jerry’s eyes, and on the rare occasion when he’s taken the pills, we see clearly how bleak, lonely and scary the real world is for him. Satrapi asks us, if our reality were as horrible as Jerry’s, wouldn’t we want to retreat into a fantasy as well?