When Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built premiered at Cannes this past May, it was greeted with some of the most emphatic, strongly-felt responses received by any film this year: there was widespread exhaustion with von Trier’s overreliance on snidely detached cruelty, many objected to its use of (graphically presented) violence against women as intellectualised metaphor, some mourned that such a revered filmmaker had seemingly stooped to indulging in shock value for its own sake. A few offered defences of the film as a piece of highly personal piece of outsider art, and others questioned why von Trier was still granted access to such a prestigious platform in light of his being accused of sexual harassment.
I feel confident in saying I was probably unique, however, in thinking, as the initial wave of reviews rolled in, ‘I hope this seemingly very bad serial killer comedy-drama by a hugely problematic director leads to people reappraising that other, really good serial killer comedy-drama by a great, under-appreciated director from a few years back.’
The really good serial killer comedy-drama in question is The Voices, the second feature by Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi that came and went from cinemas scarcely noticed by audiences in early 2015 despite generally positive notices from critics following its Sundance premiere the previous year. It’s rather easy to see why audiences stayed away – it’s an odd, often disturbing and ultimately rather sad film that never lets us get comfortable in our emotions or grasp its tone. But the very things that doomed The Voices commercially are the very things that make it such a fascinating, unique film, and so deeply worth checking out if you want to try a horror film like no other this Halloween.
The film stars Ryan Reynolds as Jerry Hickfang, a bathtub factory worker in an unnamed American small town of the kind that only seems to exist in a certain kind of off-beat dark comedy. Jerry is an awkward, lonely man who tries ineptly to be friendly at work (he tells a bald co-worker that he has “really great hair”, then after being greeted with bafflement, amends his statement: “in the back”) and nurses a hopeless crush on accountant Fiona (Gemma Arterton). Jerry also suffers from schizophrenia and refuses to take the medication prescribed by his concerned therapist Dr Warren (Jacki Weaver): as a result, he experiences frequent hallucinations and hears the pet dog and cat – Bossco and Mr Whiskers – with whom he shares his small apartment, talking to him (both voiced by Reynolds, adopting a Sam Elliot-esque Southern brogue and an acerbic Glasgow accent respectively). The dog appears as a kind of guardian angel, urging Jerry towards righteousness, while the cat tempts him with misanthropy and murder. Jerry eventually asks Fiona out on a date, only for her to stand him up. While giving her a ride home later that night, Jerry hits a deer, which triggers a complete break from reality that results in him accidentally stabbing Fiona. Horrified and remorseful, Jerry is persuaded by Mr Whiskers to dispose of Fiona’s body and put her severed head in his fridge. When he wakes up the next day, she’s talking to him as well. Things don’t improve from there.
A story about kooky characters engaging in funny-horrible violence against the backdrop of a quaint small town rendered in ironically idyllic fashion won’t exactly sound new to anyone even passingly familiar with the last thirty years of American independent cinema. What makes The Voices so distinct and discomforting, however, is the particular subtleties of its tonal and aesthetic approach to this particular milieu.
This wasn’t exactly an obvious choice for Satrapi after brilliantly adapting her own autobiographical graphic novel for the screen (alongside co-director Vincent Parronaud) to Oscar-nominated results in Persepolis, and she brings to it a unique touch that sets the film apart from its obvious generic compatriots. While it might seem hard to draw a direct line between the two features, The Voices shares with Persepolis a vibrant visual expressiveness (as befitting someone with a background in illustration) and a willingness to shatter our preconceptions when it comes to tone. Rather than using quirk to give an ironic distance to the film’s moments of horror and violence, Satrapi pushes the two up against each other to jarring, unsettling effect, juxtaposing Jerry’s almost child-like naivety with the horror of the crimes he commits in a manner that makes him a pitiable figure whose downfall is outright painful to watch.
Split was praised for its tragicomic portrait of an archetypal horror film villain as an awkward everyman struggling against his violent urges, but – perhaps for lacking that film’s overt genre conventions – The Voices is even more arresting and agonising in its profile of a killer as a thoroughly banal loser. You’ll laugh during the film, but through your fingers, at the hopeless tragedy of Jerry maintaining his belief in his own ability to secure redemption and happiness even as we know he is too far down the path of darkness already.
Satrapi and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre largely shoot the film in a bright, vibrant palette heavy on primary colours (the uniforms at Jerry’s workplace are all a particularly perky shade of pink), which it gradually becomes apparent is not just eccentric window-dressing but a side effect of Jerry’s warped perception of reality. When, panicking and horrified after murdering Fiona, Jerry begins taking his medication, the kooky style suddenly vanishes and we are confronted with the squalid, gloomy reality of Jerry’s apartment – it’s a chilling moment, and one that haunts the rest of the film as Jerry immediately throws out the pills and retreats back into fantasy. Every touch of whimsy throughout the film from that point has a chilling pall hanging over it, as no matter how ostensibly silly the imagery or dialogue gets, we’re aware we’re watching a deeply disturbed man living in denial of the awful reality of what he’s done. Denial runs throughout The Voices, which, in its unravelling of Jerry’s past and present, gradually becomes a study of how we make tragedy all but inevitable when we insist on ignoring or shying away from mental illness in ourselves or others. It’s a delicate high-wire between the horrifying and the absurd that The Voices walks, and it succeeds precisely by not trying to make its tone ‘even’ or ‘balanced’, leaning instead into the dissonant and the uncanny to create as captivating a portrayal of the co-existence of horror and mundanity as we’ve seen since American Psycho.
At the film’s centre is Reynolds, who’s turn as Jerry still stands as a career-best for the evidently talented but oft-pigeonholed actor. He’s always been known for being a manic screen presence, and the Deadpool films have cemented his reputation as a purveyor of a certain brand of hyper-active banter, but he’s never given a performance as genuinely weird and fearless as he does here. He plays Jerry with such desperate eagerness, such innocent hopefulness, and such sincere sadness that it’s impossible not to both be slightly put off by (even before he starts murdering people) and feel profoundly sorry for him. Watching Reynolds’s brilliantly unsettling, nuanced work here, you can picture him doing character roles in Jim Jarmusch or Spike Jonze films, and we can but hope he gets another chance to be so gloriously bizarre again soon.
The Voices is not perfect. Michael R. Perry’s script never moves beyond treating its women – Fiona, Dr Warren, and Anna Kendrick’s Lisa (a colleague who begins dating Jerry) – as cyphers to explore Jerry’s psyche, and some of the sequences of Reynolds as Jerry talking to himself as the pets have the feel of self-indulgent improv. But it stands as a fascinating oddity, a showcase of outside-the-box boldness from Satrapi (who is scheduled to return to cinemas soon with Radioactive, a biopic of Marie Curie starring Rosamund Pike – suffice to say, it will be fascinating to see what that looks like) and Reynolds that deserves to finally achieve the cult status it feels destined for. And it features the most memorable rendition of The O’Jays’ ‘Sing a Happy Song’ you’re likely to see anytime soon.