Deep Focus: The Voices
It’s no surprise that Ryan Reynolds is splendid and unsettling as a wholesome-looking serial killer in Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices. This perennially underrated actor has one extraordinary specialty. He’s nonpareil at suggesting a spiky sensibility under the affable veneer of a romantic lead or the athletic poise of an action hero. In Satrapi’s sporadically engaging mix of psycho-thriller and splatter comedy, Reynolds exacts a full measure of empathy for Jerry Hickfang, a cheery rube who inflicts terrible punishment on a string of unsuspecting ladies. Like him, they work at a modest tub factory in an ailing North American small town.
The Voices starts out as a classic seriocomic tale about the “new guy” on the job. Is his super-amiability just a put-on? Or is he simply ultra-pleased to be employed in the packing and shipping department of Milton Fixture and Faucet? Only his boss knows that he sees a government-appointed shrink. Except for a couple of impressionable gals in the accounting department who flutter at his cuteness, his co-workers consider him awkward and eccentrically upbeat, like a walking smiley face. Reynolds embodies this functioning schizophrenic so naturally, you believe that people around Jerry think he’s one weird go-getter, not a psycho focused on visions they can’t see. He has no human friends. He drives home to an isolated apartment above a defunct bowling alley and converses with two talking pets: Mr. Whiskers, a tabby, and Bosco, a mastiff.
Reynolds provides their voices, too—an abrasive Scottish burr for Mr. Whiskers and a deep, consoling Southern bass for Bosco. Reynolds contributed an uncredited cameo to Seth MacFarlane’s talking-teddy-bear smash Ted (12), and The Voices contains onslaughts of Ted-like sexual wisecracks from Mr. Whiskers, the archetypal loner cat, as well as slobbering and butt-sniffing from Bosco, the archetypal owner-loving dog. In this film, though, the talking-critter gags are funny, especially Mr. Whiskers’s erotic excitement over big cats tearing apart prey on a National Geographic TV show.
Satrapi best sustains the tension in the first half-hour, as her camera follows Jerry through a game of existential hopscotch. He embraces factory life with unnerving enthusiasm, dissembles to his kindly psychiatrist, Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), about whether he takes his meds or hears voices, develops a crush on a sexy British émigré named Fiona (Gemma Arterton), and tries to carve out a psychic middle ground between his ruthless, misanthropic feline and his laid-back, ethical canine. (Jerry doesn’t acknowledge that both characters emanate from his own conflicted nature.) Mr. Whiskers warns Jerry that drugs will reduce his friends to furry pets. Jerry tells Dr. Warren that without medication, he “finds moments of inspiration and beauty” when “the secrets of God and man are revealed” and the universe is “a totally pleasant place.” In other words, his drab, funky apartment becomes a squeaky-clean condo, and the factory turns into a vibrant musical-comedy setting—not just when Fiona leads a conga line during an office party (set to the O’Jays smash “Sing a Happy Song”), but also when Jerry envisions a team of forklifts performing a ballet mécanique in the parking lot. We learn in his therapy sessions that Jerry’s mother heard angels. When Jerry suddenly sees Fiona as an angel, complete with wings, we know that she, too, is bound for glory. His first killing is accidental. Or is it? After all, his victim stood him up for a date. Jerry strives to believe he’s not responsible for any carnage. He contends that Mr. Whiskers swayed him. The cat does argue that Jerry is a predator who comes alive only in the act of killing. Bosco tries to cajole Jerry into viewing himself as a good man—at least until Jerry commits his second murder.
Satrapi and her screenwriter, Michael R. Perry, use every tool at hand, including jolting flashbacks, to accentuate Jerry’s extreme quirks and to bring his tragic family subtext to the fore. Midway through, we learn that he assisted his mother in her bloody suicide. Few childhood traumas get re-enacted in adulthood more literally and repeatedly than Jerry’s does here, and that’s too bad. A movie as outrageous as The Voices shouldn’t be so explicable and neat. Satrapi is ingenious at expressing the rift between reality and Jerry’s world. Emotionally, though, she never finds a way to square our queasy identification with the murderer with our craving to see justice done for his victims.
Screenwriter Perry has compared Jerry to the gentle giant Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but when Lennie kills a woman it really is a fluke and the gal is an unmitigated minx. The Voices splits our sympathies. Production designer Udo Kramer’s goal was to make the audience want to fly with Jerry “to heaven. ” Indeed, in the sparkling number in the closing credits, Jesus Christ (Michael Pink) and Jerry, and his mom, dad, and victims, belt out their own spirited rendition of “Sing a Happy Song,” with Day-Glo couture and choreography that mixes the dance styles of Busby Berkeley, Hullabaloo, and Soul Train. Sadly, once the giddiness of the song and dance wears off, the movie leaves the audience in limbo.
Satrapi’s powers of invention keep you watching; so does Reynolds’s remarkable range, from crybaby to butcher to dazzling song-and-dance man. With Dr. Warren he’s in turn a vulnerable little boy, a mischievous adolescent, and a fed-up adult who wants to know point-blank what’s wrong with him. At age 38, Reynolds is a multitalented actor who still has superstar potential. In 2009, he displayed amazing versatility in three major releases. In Anne Fletcher’s glossy romcom The Proposal, he played the executive assistant and fiancé of convenience to a hard-driving publisher (Sandra Bullock). Reynolds exuded geniality but also had the wit to use it as a mask. He pulled the audience in by signaling his character’s disbelief at the absurdity of it all. In Greg Mottola’s funky, heartfelt coming-of-age film, Adventureland, Reynolds was subtle and affecting as a small-time rocker who repairs rides at a Pittsburgh amusement park—a good-looking guy with strictly surface confidence. Reynolds even enlivened a segment of Gavin Hood’s leaden X-Men Origins: Wolverine as the mercenary Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool. In Reynolds’s characterization he employs wisecracks as a verbal smoke screen and cuts through fusillades with Katana swords like a lethal Iron Chef. (The first Deadpool feature, starring Reynolds, is scheduled for February 2016.)
In the last half-decade, Reynolds has gone through his own recession, mostly because of his botched superstar breakthrough in Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (11). Despite his valiant attempt to bring some soft-shoe grace to a clunky 3-D superhero spectacle, Reynolds got the blame in most pop media—the curse of being the high-profile player in a Hollywood fiasco. Since then, any box-office failure he’s appeared in has been cited as a professional comedown for Reynolds, whether it was an engaging cartoon like Turbo (Reynolds played the title snail) or a DOA comic-book movie like R.I.P.D.
These setbacks haven’t shaken his confidence. In The Voices, Reynolds is always persuasive, whether Jerry is flattering himself with points of pride—like his nasal, breathy, pseudo-Asian pronunciation of his favorite chow mein joint, Shi Shen—or blissing out while dancing solo with Fiona after that office-party conga, doing a gleeful frug halfway between Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night and Elaine’s notorious dance in Seinfeld. You even buy that he can forge a genuine loving connection to a more sincere woman from accounting, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), a sweet divorcee who responds with compassion when he breaks down in tears at his childhood home. She’s so eager for romance that she ignores all of Jerry’s warning signals. She assumes he’s deep, not deeply troubled.
Satrapi lavishes affection on her characters; that’s why it’s disconcerting when she starts to kill them off. She won international acclaim eight years ago for the animated adaptation of Persepolis, her autobiographical graphic novel, which she co-directed and co-wrote with Vincent Paronnaud. They teamed up again in 2011 for the live-action adaptation of her graphic-novel fable, Chicken With Plums. But the story about a musician who loses his artistic spark and gives up on life lacked the ineluctable pull of Persepolis, with its nuanced, galvanizing tale of Marjane growing up absurd in revolutionary Iran. And the film’s self-conscious design raised the question of whether Satrapi was a filmmaker or a static painter, treating each scene as a self-contained tableau. The Voices is the second film she’s directed solo. (The first, Gang of the Jotas from 2012, has not been shown here.) It’s a giant step forward for Satrapi, and not just because this is her first film from another writer’s script. Even Persepolis drew more on marionette theater and shadow puppetry than cinema. It duplicated the imagery of Satrapi’s graphic novel, but not the electric connections between panels that made it a page-turner. The graphic novel Persepolis starts with a self-portrait of Satrapi at age 10, followed by, in the next frame, a class photo without her. “I’m sitting on the far left so you don’t see me,” she explains in a caption, instantly keying readers to notice the links between panels and to guess what transpires in the white space between them.
The Voices translates graphic-novel kinesis into a headlong movie narrative. Satrapi prods you into a heightened state of awareness as she indicates that Jerry sees the world through pinkish rose-colored glasses. She resists immediate contrasts of illusion and reality. Instead, she lets you see how Jerry plays director in his own unmoored life. He chooses angles of vision that emphasize the positive even in the parking lot of Milton Fixture and Faucet, where a pink pyramid of packages distracts us from noticing the rotten siding on the factory walls. Satrapi expresses Jerry’s growing reliance on Mr. Whiskers and Bosco visually. They move from off-camera or off-kilter conversations to closeups and group shots, where they go head-to-head with Jerry. In my favorite scene they spread out on a sofa and talk back to their TV, much like the families on Bravo’s The People’s Couch.
Satrapi brings out the hidden strengths of all her female performers. Arterton’s crackling bored-dame timing firms up Fiona’s blowsy charm, while Kendrick nails the neediness as well as the niceness in the good girl Lisa. Ella Smith completes this trio of karaoke muses as Alison, a big-hearted co-worker who puts out feelers for any sign of sexual intrigue. These three are never funnier than when they execute this film’s coldblooded variation on Mombi’s heads in Return to Oz.
With everything this film has going for it, why is The Voices still unsatisfying? It’s as if Satrapi and Perry ran out of ideas after deciding to use humor to walk the audience inside a serial killer’s head. A climactic scene of Dr. Warren under duress, dispensing “10 years of therapy in 10 seconds,” is mostly witty and well acted, especially when she compares Jerry hearing voices to herself enduring thoughts that psychotherapy is not legitimate. But when she says “being alone is the root of all suffering,” it does not encapsulate this very busy movie.
We know Jerry is alone. Still, The Voices is so jam-packed with visual pizzazz and talking-animal and office jokes, we don’t feel Jerry’s tragic solitude in our bones. Satrapi’s film plays more like a cautionary fable about denial, or a satiric portrait of a dead-end town, where the height of entertainment is karaoke singing at a bar or an Asian Elvis impersonator at a Chinese restaurant. When The Voices has to get dead serious, it’s like a karaoke version of Red Dragon.