The Norman Bates archetype is given a compelling new twist in Marjane Satrapi’s very funny, very dark comedy The Voices. As Ryan Reynolds’ conflicted and confused Jerry Hickfang toys with the idea of murder, his dog Bosco and cat Mr Whiskers are the angel and devil on his shoulders, providing erudite and convicing arguments both for and against taking his hunting knife out and filling his fridge.
Jerry’s a small town guy working in a bathroom supply warehouse. He’s fallen hard for Fiona (Gemma Arterton), the pretty English girl in accounts, but does she feel the same way? Mr Whiskers is convinced that she thinks he’s a lonely weirdo, but Bosco feels that Jerry should just be himself. Jerry’s therapist (Jacki Weaver) thinks her patient should be fine as long as he takes his meds, but has Jerry been following doctor’s orders?
Although The Voices is Satrapi’s first film not based on a graphc novel (following Persepolis and Chicken With Plums), there is a definitely a comic book sensibility to the film, especially in its early stages. She shows us the world though Jerry’s eyes and it’s bursting with colour and adorable details, from his bright pink work overalls through to the heart-shaped piece of pepperoni.
As he presses his suit with Fiona and Satrapi lifts the veil, that bright and kooky filter becomes increasingly skin-crawling. When Jerry tells his dream girl that she’s an angel; it’s not just a cheesy pick-up line, it’s something much scarier. As the film gets progressively darker there’s a strong Maniac influence (fitting, given that director of photography Maxime Alexandre also shot Franck Khalfoun’s POV remake), although we’d argue that there’s more substance to be found here.
It’s a demanding lead character and Reynolds is superb. Satrapi executes some bold tonal shifts and the star proves more than capable of steering Jerry through little-boy-lost to cold-blooded killer and back, all the while keeping up the cheery boy-next-door exterior. It’s been a while since anyone’s given Reynolds the chance to stretch himself and it’s a joy to see him take on someone as challenging as Jerry Hickfang. Arterton manages the switch between his idealised version of Fiona and the less-than-perfect reality, while the ever-excellent Anna Kendrick is both grounded and charming as the colleague with a crush on Jerry.
There’s also the matter of the talking animals, all voiced by Reynolds. There’s the reassuring (eerily Gary Busey-esque) drawl of Bosco telling him that he’s a good man and urging him not to go out, and the foul-mouthed Scots of Mr Whiskers, who tells Jerry to indulge his animal instincts. These voices provide comic relief but they are a part of Reynolds’ larger performance as Jerry. They’re the conscience and the id, but they’re the support system that he can’t do without. If Jerry can’t talk to his pets, he’ll be forced to confront just how bad his life really is, and that’s a step he can’t bring himself to take.
Satrapi’s approach to the material may not be for everyone, but she goes about it with a tremendous and well-earned confidence. It’s first and foremost a dark comedy, but it goes to some upsetting places. She doesn’t shy away from the violence that Jerry commits, and it’s tough to watch at times. What’s more, Satrapi is committed to showing that Jerry is a tragic figure. We’re shown his traumatic past and we’re made to understand how he arrived at his present state, but he’s not given an easy get-out either. He is forced to confront who he is and what he’s done, and he will have to make a choice.
Candy-coloured, pitch black and really quite mad, The Voices presents tricky subject matter in a manner both confrontational and considered. It’s hilarious, but Satrapi’s superb direction and Reynolds’ excellent performance ensure that you’ll be shocked and even a little moved by the time the credits roll. An aquired taste, perhaps, but this is a wonderfully dark treat.
The Voices is playing at Sundance London on 26 and 27 April. You can find further information and buy tickets here.