Thirty years ago, during the height of the VHS boom, a movie like The Voices would be considered an envelope-pushing, clever cult classic. It would offer up just enough quirk, and more than enough ancillary oddness, to mandate at least a single three-day rental. It would earn a solid outsider fanbase and cater to the proto-hipster long before Portlandia became a thing. Now, in the light of 2015’s overall obsession with the wacky and the weird, The Voices is a nice novelty. A few will still consider it genius, though, sadly, its ideas and their execution only deliver a sporadic experience.
Jerry Hickfang (an enjoyable Ryan Reynolds) is one F-ed up dude. You see, his parents were horrible, hateful people and the childhood trauma he faced (including watching his mom kill herself) has lead to a psyche that can best be described as “troubled.” Following some unnamed crime, Jerry is currently under the court-ordered care of a therapist (Jacki Weaver) who seems to be making progress with her patient. Thanks to these sessions, our hero has a steady job, a genial personality, and a couple of pets — a dog and a cat — who talk to him. Yes, Jerry hears voices, and what they have to tell him is not very helpful at all. Mr. Whiskers, the cat, wants him to kill people. Bosco, the dog, wants him to be good. As his compulsion grows, Jerry focuses on his some gals at work to calm his “urges.”
And that’s just the beginning of this baffling, sometimes brilliant film. The Voices may not always know how to manage its tone (this isn’t Bob Balaban’s amazing Parents after all). Instead, like the recent John Dies at the End, this is a movie that’s all over the map, mixing uncomfortable gore with goofy, borderline racism (Jerry’s favorite place to eat is a surreal Chinese restaurant). One moment, the females in the cast (co-workers Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton) are singing ’80s karaoke, the next, a deer is begging Jerry to slit its throat (and gets its wish). The idea here is that, at any given moment, our lead is either the most jovial guy in the world, or the most unhinged. We never know who we’ll meet.
Since he provides the voices for his four-legged tormentors as well, this really is a tour de force for Reynolds. He gets to play good, evil, clear-headed, insane, and via the animals, Scottish and slack-jawed Southern. The scenes where the cat and dog provide commentary to Jerry’s actions are hilarious and the overall approach is peppy and kinetic. For a novice filmmaker, Persepolis‘ Marjane Satrapi does the best she can with screenwriter Michael Perry’s ideas. It’s the script that lets them both down, not the concepts or their implementation. In fact, one imagines that Reynolds et. al. could probably ad lib better jokes than what the actual dialogue offers.
Another problem is the premise. Within 15 minutes of introducing us to Jerry, we have our first corpse. Granted, the “hearing voices” gimmick gives Arterton (and Kendrick, and others) a chance to continue on as a complaining disembodied head, but we barely know her. She lacks true dimension, her and the rest of the supporting character defined by homeland (Britain) or sex drive (Kendrick wants Jerry to meet her in the copy rooms for make-out sessions). Since we never figure out who these ladies really are, their deaths are nothing more than the typical victim fodder. You’d figure that someone like Satrapi would demand more from her players. Instead, there’s a cartoony quality to The Voices that continues on, even into the hyper-real credits.
Still, when The Voices works, it’s terrific. It’s a unique look at mental illness that offers just enough newness to override the formula and familiarity within the genre. It’s not the greatest horror comedy ever made, but in the end, it’s freaky little flick.