One of the oddest films about mental illness to come along in awhile, this pitch black comedy from Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) follows the downward spiral of Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a fellow driven to violence by the voices in his head… which seem to be emanating from his pets. Some spoilers follow.
We open in the charming town of Milton (a reference to Paradise Lost?), where workers in the local toilet-fixture factory wear pastel pink jumpsuits. One among them is Jerry, an aw-shucks type who also happens to have a court-ordered psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) watching over him. The whole thing is quirky, but with the hint of a nightmare lurking just underneath. Affable Jerry, a criminal? How could this be?
We soon learn the reason when Jerry clocks out and goes home (he lives in an "only in an indie movie" locale: above an old bowling alley), where his dog, Bosco, and cat, Mr. Whiskers, address him with knowing familiarity. (Reynolds does all the voices, giving Bosco a good ol' boy drawl and Mr. Whiskers a Scottish brogue.) It gets dark really fast; Mr. Whiskers, for one, is a bit of a motherfucker, asking Jerry "Did you fuck the bitch?" when talk turns to a comely co-worker, Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a flirty Brit whose idea of a good time is a conga line at the company party.
Too bad she's a little weirded out by the earnest Jerry, who nonetheless asks her out (to an "only in an indie movie" event: an Elvis impersonator performance at a local Chinese restaurant). She accepts, but blows him off in favor of karaoke with other co-workers, affording the film a chance to include a duet between Arterton and co-star Anna Kendrick.
As fate or bad luck would have it, Fiona's car breaks down later that night, right when the bummed-out Jerry is cruising past. Though he imagines her as a heavenly creature — recalling his late, beloved mother, who heard voices she explained away as angels — he still can't quite resist chasing her down and stabbing her to death (oopsies!) amid the chaos after he accidentally hits a deer with his car ("Finish it, please, Jerry" the agonized creature begs our twisted Dr. Doolittle). Dragging her body back to his house, he finds a horrified dog and a sagely nodding cat, the latter of whom assures him, "The only time I've ever felt truly alive is when I'm killing."
Once Jerry gets to dismemberin', he slices off Fiona's pretty head and pops it in the fridge, and he has a new chatty companion — albeit one who only speaks in the most cliched British slang imaginable, and who makes a lot of gruesome demands ("Can you get me a friend? God save the queen!") While Fiona's disappearance begins to raise eyebrows around town, Jerry's already moved on to his next target, another coworker. Unlike Fiona, Lisa (Kendrick) actually digs Jerry, but of course there's no real chance at happiness here.
Throughout the film, Jerry has regular meetings with his court-ordered shrink, kindly Dr. Warren, whose therapy tactics mostly consist of going over a checklist (asking Jerry if he's been crying a lot, etc.) and gently nagging Jerry about taking his pills. If he doesn't take 'em, she'll have to report him as being "non-compliant," and he might have to go back behind bars (we eventually see what he did to attract the court's notice in the first place, via flashback, and it's more tragedy than crime... at least, it is in Jerry's unsteady memory).
Thing is, Jerry'd rather not dull his mind with medication. If he takes it, he can't hear the voices, which means he can't communicate with Bosco and Mr. Whiskers. To Jerry, loneliness is the ultimate sadness. "Don't take the pills unless you want to say goodbye to your friends," Mr. Whiskers advises, though we've known all along that Jerry has no friends, and he's been talking to himself this whole time. There's one scene shortly after he does take his meds, and has to come to terms with his animals behaving like normal pets, cloaked in the mystery of non-verbal communication. It's the saddest moment in the film, even sadder than when the drugged-up Jerry realizes the act of murder actually brings feelings of guilt in its wake.
The Voices does make some salient points about the treatment of mental illness; in some ways, it recalls a very different film, A Beautiful Mind, which also explored why someone who knew he was unstable would refuse a prescription that would make his mind "normal." But this isn't a case of a mathematical genius becoming average. It's a serial killer who's presented as a nice guy who just can't help himself. Rooting for Jerry becomes more and more problematic as the film's body count rises, and it doesn't help that screenwriter Michael R. Perry feels the need to include a couple of heavy-handed scenes in which a desperate Jerry rambles at length about what a complicated guy he is. "Why do I hear voices?" he asks Dr. Warren, who does her very best to deliver "10 years of therapy in 10 seconds," having realized nearly too late how very dangerous her schizophrenic client is.
For star Reynolds, The Voices represents another one of his between-blockbusters offbeat choices (way more in the vein of, say, Buried than the upcoming Deadpool). He has the nice-guy facade down pat, but he's a bit lacking in the depth that made Norman Bates or Patrick Bateman (both likely influences on the character) such complicated dudes. The talking-pets gimmick is cute, but it's also a gag that grows tiresome as the film progresses, and it's the best example of why The Voices' inconsistent tone is its biggest issue. It doesn't want to make Jerry a true villain, even after he starts killing willy-nilly, and it clings to its off-kilter indie trappings instead of going full-bore horror.
The end-credits sequence, which pops after the film's fiery conclusion, offers a costumed song-and-dance that feels like it was slapped on so that nobody would leave the theater feeling bummed out. If you're going to go for gory and goofy, it's always better to make sure that choice deliberately informs the entire film; there's nothing less satisfying than trying to have it both ways by pinballing between two extremes.