That women exist primarily to support men on their journey through life is an outdated patriarchal impulse that unfortunately continues to inform the majority of modern filmmaking. It is pandered to particularly luridly in The Voices, where all female characters – whether full-bodied object of desire or severed head in a fridge – are there to support protagonist Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) in his quest for self-acceptance.
All button down shirts and neatly combed hair, Jerry seems the very picture of normalcy. Turns out, however, that he has been neglecting to take his medication, and as a result holds increasingly dark conversations with his pets (both voiced by Reynolds). While loveable dog Bosco tries to remain the voice of reason, his cat, Mr Whiskers, is a vicious psychopath determined to push Jerry into committing the most heinous acts. It’s not long before Jerry’s resolve gives way, and it’s his co-workers Fiona (a throaty Gemma Arterton), Lisa (Anna Kendrick) and Alison (Ella Smith) who pay the price. Even Jerry’s therapist Dr Warren (Jackie Weaver) is not immune from his extracurricular attentions.
The screenplay by Michael R Perry (brilliant TV sci-fi The River, less brilliant horror sequel Paranormal Activity 2) forces the audience into Jerry’s head, all the action unfolding via his skewed version of reality. Viewed through his psychosis, the world is Technicolor, his pets are his dearest confidantes and the women in his life forgive, understand and value him, even in a post-death state. This stark contract between the Disneyfied way in which Jerry sees the world and the grim horror he wreaks upon it is starkly highlighted when he decides to actually take his meds. When the scales of disassociation fall away, his apartment is revealed to be a dark, dank hell-hole and his pets turn away from him in silence.
Given Jerry’s nightmarish reality, it’s understandable that he prefers to seek solace in his illusions; the problem here is that his point of view is used not only as a framing device, but also to justify the mining of his appalling acts – not to mention his desperate loneliness and debilitating illness – for entertainment and, worse, laughs. Ok, so the film was never meant to be a realistic study of psychosis, more a dark comedy about a reluctant serial killer, but any potential enjoyment is soured by its repugnant attitude towards mental illness and, of course, women.
In line with genre conventions, Jerry’s victims are all female, and while he may not appreciate the stark horror of his actions the camera certainly does. It lingers on the gore, on the death throes of (a partially clad, of course) Fiona, choking on her own blood while Jerry weeps his apologies above her and, in extreme close-up, the life leaving Lisa’s eyes. To add insult to particularly heinous injury, the script treats these women no better in life than in death. Fiona is a caricature, a teasing British mean girl who leads Jerry on and then cruelly lets him down; Lisa a mild-mannered do-gooder who, the film suggests, walks blithely into her own fate; and Alison an overweight office worker with virtually no dialogue and absolutely no purpose other than to become a third head in Jerry’s macabre fridge-bound frog chorus. Indeed, the progression of Jerry’s attentions through these women, culminating in his (even more) nonsensical terrorising of his much older psychotherapist, suggests something of a league table of attractiveness that, even if unintentional, is unbelievably offensive.
It’s difficult to see what director Marjane Satrapi, maker of the excellent Persepolis, may have seen in this story that made her want to bring it to the screen, and her approach seems to have been to attempt to ramp up the funny to the detriment of taste. While an intriguing concept, a horror movie dressed up like a rom com was always going to be a tough ask and, while the resulting schizophrenic tone may mirror Jerry’s personality, it also dilutes his horrific behaviour to the point of unquestioning compliance. This flippant acceptance of Jerry as a sympathetic antihero, a man forced into becoming a monster through no fault of his own, is given further credence by a tragic childhood backstory and a ludicrous end credits song and dance sequence which awards Jerry the ultimate redemption. ‘Cos a murderer shouldn’t have to atone for his crimes if he says he’s sorry, right?
As that deadly nice guy Reynolds is actually very well cast, embodying the effortless mix of charming boy next door and creepy psycho that the character demands. He is an actor of wide range and talent with some exceptional performances (The Nines, Buried) under his belt, and he is certainly not the issue here. Similarly, Arterton and Kendrick are both brilliant, watchable actors who can’t help but bring their A-game every time they’re on screen. Their combined talents are, however, nowhere near enough to rescue a film which presents itself as a light, fun killer comedy but plays like a celebration of unchallenged, brutal misogyny without consequence – and, even worse, one that we’re meant to find hugely entertaining.
UK Release: March 20, 2015