Critic Vafa Motamedi reviews The Voices
Persepolis writer/director Marjane Satrapai takes an interesting swerve from her usual Iranian fare into this off-beat American indie black comedy which premiered at Sundance last year.
The story concerns Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds), a small town factory worker, endearingly awkward and in love from afar with his British co-worker (Gemma Arterton). Only problem is he thinks his cat and dog can talk to him and what they’re saying isn’t very pleasant. What follows is Jerry’s rapid descent into madness and murder as his pets egg him on from the side-lines.
The main problem with the film is in its difficulty in settling on a tone. The film, though purporting to be a black comedy, is never actually all that funny and the film focuses too much on the gore and horror of the situation to ever exploit the morbid humour. It is a film that feels like it should be a black comedy without ever actually wanting to be one. Without the comedy all we are left with is a rather unpleasant yet not very elucidating journey through the mind of a schizophrenic that never quite convinces. The ridiculousness of the talking cat and dog are never reconciled with the (often quite unsettling) body horror. The source of this is the script which really isn’t up to snuff, featuring many obvious trite allusions (the town is called Milton in reference to Paradise Lost) and the handling of mental illness is sympathetic yet for the most part feels clunky and uninspired. One feels like there is an attempt here to satirize small town life but we focus so much on Jerry and so little on the other citizens that it never really quite works. How this script got on the Black List is impossible to say – beyond the central kooky premise there is nothing really outstanding on a textual level.
Ryan Reynolds is by far the film’s strongest element and if it works at all it is down to his performance. He manages to straddle successfully the Norman Bates line of being both likeable and disturbing in equal measure. We’re always scared by Jerry but we are never driven to really hate him. Reynolds also plays the voices of his pet cat Mr Whiskers ( as a psychotic Scot) and dog Bosco (as a big lovable Barney Rubble-like conscience). Nearly all of the film’s humour comes from these two and their clashing worldviews and are a testament to Reynold’s versatility and strength as both a comic and dramatic actor. Reynolds has a remarkable talent for picking crap projects yet he always manages to shine in them. Other actors (Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Weaver) aren’t really given much to do here other than sweetness and victimhood though they give decent performances nevertheless.
One standout sequence is where Jerry starts taking medication for his condition. As he wakes up, the world around him appears warped and lacklustre as if all the energy and colour has seeped away from the frame. It’s a powerful moment and demonstrates quite strongly the reasons for many people’s reluctance to take psychiatric drugs. Another great sequence is a song and dance number at the end which has a zaniness that is totally at odds with the relative grimness of the rest of the film yet one feels that if the rest of the film corresponded with the tone of the final scene, the film would work a whole lot better.
This is Satrapani’s first solo directorial gig and there is awkwardness to the editing and shot composition that reveals that fact. The opening sequence is very weirdly handled and features a smash to the title that feels out of place; in fact the entire film is full of beats and moments that jar and feel clumsy. One could argue that this is an attempt to mirror Jerry’s own awkwardness but it happens so frequently and so bizarrely it seems more like an inexperienced directorial hand.
It seems a shame really that Satrapani’s trademark off-beat humour is stifled by a script that is going through the motions. Hopefully Satrapani can find another project that can demonstrate her talents to the full.
Four out of Ten