'The Voices' gives us yet another murderous protagonist to cheaply psychoanalyze
The Voices Lionsgate
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Screenplay: Michael R. Perry
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith and Stanley Townsend
Rated R / 1 hour, 43 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Note: I try to tread carefully when it comes to spoilers. Some might call what I reveal about The Voices to be spoiler territory; I call it the plot of the movie, and I can't very well discuss it without mentioning certain things. Proceed at your own risk.
There's an abundance of movies about young male psychopaths who murder and dismember women, and the most curious thing about them is how frequently they on insist on pathos. No, no - not for the women being killed. For the men killing them. Those poor, poor men.
Granted, any character - no matter how depraved - can make for a fascinating and worthy subject. In most cases (as in most movies in general), whether it works or not comes down to a matter of tone. But there's such a preoccupation with that narrative idea that it borders on fetishization, especially with the way so many of these films turn their killers into tragic figures while still indulging, even enjoying, all of their bloodshed. More often than not, the justification for these men's "tragic" nature is cheap, childhood trauma bullshit - the mommy issues in Franck Khalfoun's Maniac, the childhood tragedy in Nate Taylor's Forgetting the Girl, to cite a couple of very recent examples.
There's a big difference between making a slasher movie largely from the victims' point of view and making one from the slasher's point of view. It's the difference between John Carpenter's Halloween and Rob Zombie's Halloween, the latter of which turned Michael Myers into an absurd psychological portrait.
The latest take on this ... well, let's go ahead and call it a subgenre for simplicity's sake, is The Voices, about a mild-mannered, socially awkward, therapy-dependent young man named Jerry whose pets (a dog and a cat) speak to him (other miscellaneous animals, on occasion, do the same) and eventually lead him on a path to murder. Once again, we get a film that is unable to resist the allure of explaining away the behavior of this type of character. It does this via flashback, and while I certainly won't reveal the nature of what we find out about Jerry and Jerry's childhood, the important thing is that we are clearly expected to feel sorry for him. That, and "understand" him, a tack that always strikes me as impossible and irrelevant in a movie like this. Can finding out some horrifying childhood detail really explain - in any serviceable way - why someone would grow up to be a schizophrenic serial killer? A resounding no. It's just cheap pop psychology. (And even more unseemly is how often the "explanation" implicitly implicates women.)
In The Voices and countless movies that preceded it, it's treated like cheap sentiment, too. In this case, if the flashback explanation had been treated with the same sardonic attitude as other parts of the film, it may have worked better. That approach could assure that Jerry, the future killer, is at least partially the butt of the joke, rather than a borderline martyr.
Or better yet, leave the trite psychological profile out altogether. Stop trying to invent silly, compassionate reasons for why poor damaged boys grow up to kill women. Come on, filmmakers - for all the time you've spent trying to pathologize or empathize with that type of killer, it seems you could have spent a bit more time on the women themselves. At least try to pretend you care about their ultimate demise.
The big wrinkle here is that, unlike the overwhelming majority of its predecessors, The Voices is directed by a woman, Marjane Satrapi (whose terrific debut Persepolis was Oscar-nominated and whose follow-up, the visually marvelous Chicken with Plums, may have been great if not for the insufferable mopiness of its main character), working from a screenplay by TV veteran Michael R. Perry. But it's unclear what exactly she's trying to examine here, and more than a little disappointing to see how little textual depth she brings to such a tired narrative.
What qualities it does have, however, are largely her doing. Of particular note is her application of color as it defines Jerry's warped state of mind, an element Satrapi lays on with subtle touches early on before it really starts to become apparent. When we first get to know Jerry, most everything seems normal. Except the part about him conversing with his pets - Mr. Whiskers, a foul-mouthed feline with a Scottish accent, and Bosco, his kind and loyal dog. (Together they make for quite a subconscious - a weak-willed, aw-shucks angel on one shoulder and a ruthless, poisonous devil on the other.)
His apartment is normal, his truck is normal, and the only thing that stands out about his job at a local factory is the uniform - a bright, hot-pink coverall.
His behavior starts to become aberrant in large part because he goes off his meds, much to the dismay of his psychiatrist, Dr. Herman (Jacki Weaver). When he temporarily starts taking them again, we see his apartment as it really is - dark, moldy, filthy, with trash in all corners piled all the way to the ceiling.
Of course, he doesn't like this reality. Not one bit. His "idealized" version of home isn't even ideal - it's just normal. Decently kept-up, well-lit, clean, inexpensive, with average furnishings. A run-of-the-mill single-guy apartment. If the movie lands at any interesting point, there it is - Jerry doesn't see himself as special, doesn't even want to be special. He just wants to be normal.
When he commits his first murder, he brings the severed head back to his apartment and places it carefully in the fridge. And yes, it's not long before the head is talking to him as well.
When he goes back on his pills and is exposed to the ugly truth of his life, the head no longer looks so magazine-ad perfect; it's rotting and blue and smelly and no longer talks to him, nor do Mr. Whiskers and Bosco. Jerry doesn't much like that, either.
The way Satrapi quite literally colors our perception of things as the story moves along is the film's best accomplishment, and as the changing sense of perspective becomes more and more clear, we think, oh yeah, those conspicuously cheery factory uniforms probably aren't actually hot-pink, either. We just didn't quite realize it at first.
Reynolds has rarely been an especially likeable on-screen presence, unless you're won over by the skin-deep (at best) "charm" of his typical persona, but I've always found him much stronger as an actor in his smaller roles, when that persona drops off (The Nines, Buried). This would probably apply to that category, and he at least makes the struggle for his character's sanity seem genuine, even if the character doesn't earn the humanity Reynolds tries to give it. Even stronger, however, are Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick - the former as Fiona, the perky, cosmopolitan British woman on whom Jerry harbors a crush; the latter as Lisa, the kind, mousy office girl who has a thing for Jerry. Both are impressive in the way they shift between different modes over the course of the film. (Arterton in particular gets to hit some notes I don't think I've seen from her before.)
Still, they deserve to have better-written characters in a better-conceived movie. The Voices is ostensibly a dark comedy, and there are times when it works like one. But its insistence on providing lazy psychological reasoning lifts it out of the realm of dark comedy and into a kind of disingenuous horror-comedy. For movie about a guy who hears voices that compel him to murder - especially one built so carefully on a subjective point of view - I'm honestly not sure how, or if, you could do it right without telling it through his eyes. Fine. But if you're going to place us into the deranged mind of a woman-killer, have the decency not to ask us to sympathize with him, too.