Mental illness is no laughing matter, especially where schizophrenia, paranoid delusions and psychosis are concerned. But that hasn’t stopped screenwriter Michael R. Perry – a veteran of genre TV shows like Eerie, Indiana, American Gothic, Millennium, Stephen King’s Dead Zone and The River, and co-writer of Paranormal Activity 2 – from concocting a supremely weird and entirely wonderful black comedy from the plight of Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a shipping clerk for small town bathroom fittings company Milton Fixture and Faucet who is given to paranoid delusions that his cat (Mr Whiskers) and dog (Boscoe) are talking to him – in, respectively, a potty-mouthed Scots accent and a low Southern drawl.
Jerry has recently been released from the mental institution where he had languished since some unpleasant business with his mother, who was also prone to hearing voices, and is now under the care of a psychotherapist (Jacki Weaver), and is supposed to be taking medication to keep his psychosis under control. The pills dull Jerry’s normally sunny disposition, however, revealing the grim reality of his lonely life, so he decides to flush them and live with the consequences. Bad, bad idea.
Tasked with planning an office party, Jerry encounters brassy English accounts clerk Fiona (Gemma Arterton), with whom he becomes enamoured, and eventually manages to take on a date. But when his pickup truck collides with a deer, which Jerry then kills with a hunting knife he happens to have to hand, Fiona is freaked out – and the evening goes from bad to worse (especially for Fiona) when she makes a panicked run into the woods, a knife-wielding Jerry hot on her heels.
To say more would be to spoil one of the most surprising, refreshing and audaciously entertaining films of the year – although that hasn’t stopped the trailer from giving away most of the film’s surprises (word to the wise: avoid the trailer if you want to get the most from the film) – so I’ll focus on some of the spoiler-free things that make The Voices such a resoundingly hilarious, touching and utterly unique horror-comedy.
Firstly, there’s Ryan Reynolds crackerjack performance; we’ve seen him in just about every genre of film, from comedies (Van Wilder: Party Liaison, The Change-Up) thrillers (Buried, Safe House) to rom-coms (The Proposal, Definitely, Maybe), horror films (The Blade: Trinity, The Amityville Horror remake), superhero movies (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern, R.I.P.D.), animated voice roles (The Croods, Turbo) and less easily definable indie fare (The Nines, Adventureland). But until now, we haven’t really seen what he’s capable of. The Voices is an Adam Sandler-in-Punch-Drunk Love sized revelation – even if he is mostly channelling Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates.
Then there’s Perry’s script, shortlisted for the infamous Blacklist in 2009, which walks a tightrope between comedy and horror without swaying too close to either side, and (with Reynolds’ help) manages to make Jerry a sympathetic sort of sociopath. Given Robin Williams’ clown-in-the-moonlight performance in One Hour Photo, it would be interesting to see what Mark Romanek would have made of The Voices (he was originally slated to direct), but thankfully – and here’s a sentence you don’t get to write very often – the project was given to an Iranian woman: Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi. (For those keeping count, this means that three of the best horror films of the last six months were directed by women: Honeymoon, The Babadook and The Voices. Yes, The Voices is a comedy. But it’s still a horror film.) Not only did Satrapi ‘get’ the unique, uh, voice in Perry’s script, but she nails the execution, seemingly making the best possible decision at every turn, on a project where a single wrong move would bring the whole thing crashing down. One of her best choices – aside from deciding to animate the talking animals in the Babe tradition (real animals, CG mouths), and having Reynolds voice them all – was cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, well known to genre fans for his work on the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes, The Crazies and Maniac, as well as Christopher Roth and Silent Hill: Revelation. Alexandre’s work calls to mind the American urban photographs of William Eggleston or Wim Wenders, and it isn’t a stretch to say some of his shots – especially of Jerry’s home, above a derelict bowling alley – wouldn’t look out of place framed and hung on the wall.
In fact, the only element that feels out of kilter with the otherwise sure-footed film is a crackpot, sui generis ‘scene’ that comes after the end credits, but it would be a fun-hating individual indeed who doesn’t relish it as much as the deliciously dark tale that precedes it.
David Hughes (@DavidHughesTwit)
The Voices (@TheVoicesUK) opens in the UK on March 20.