In the Grand Scheme of Things, Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices won’t send the cinematic grounds shaking nor provide us with new techniques to further filmmaking craft, and anyone who sees this will very much likely dismiss it as nothing more than an absurdist, bizzaro black comedy with a lion’s share of identity crisis. Unless your middle name is Weird, then this is surely your cup of tea. In fairness, the film is outright bizarre and difficult to pin down, throwing into the melting pot several genres and aesthetics that couldn’t be more disparate from each other, but in the more-than-capable hands of Satrapi, she makes these strange bedfellows look like the best of buddies and get the show working.
And in this zeitgeist of compartmentalisation of movies, it’s admirable that Satrapi’s new one refuses to fit in just one mould, constantly defying audience expectations, not so much leaping from one genre to the next as hoarding a few of them in a huge, blood-soaked container and wrap it with pink ribbons and golden butterflies whilst being delivered on your screen with a gaudy musical number. Yes, it’s both as freakish and grisly as it sounds. But one thing’s for certain, you can never accuse Satrapi for being uninspired and dull, and the creator of the unassuming monochromatic wonder Persepolis may be the last person on Earth you’d expect to direct a wildly unclassifiable material as this.
Just when you surmise a Sundance-bound movie featuring talking animals and a dorky, honey-glazed Ryan Reynolds to be as twee as fuck, The Voices begins to play runaround games with its audience, flitting from brassy romcom to workplace drama to whimsical character study, animal psychosis, black comedy and right down to the dark, demented and gruesome horror in the vein of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The comparison isn’t without justification – the cunning choice of casting dark-haired, sinewy Reynolds as the outwardly charming, smiley-face factory worker Jerry Hickfang is a self-conscious nod to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates.
Don’t believe me? Just look at those almond eyes, eyebrows and everything.
So I hear you bray that The Voices doesn’t know what it wants to be? Wrong. A film doesn’t have to fit in one rigid format when it can cut a few body parts and fit them in plenty of Tupperware boxes. Satrapi directs with admirable brio and energy, swathing her misé-en-scene with garish hot-pink details and then splashing a bucket of blood the next. Even the soundtracks is having a whale of a time – twinkly musical score one minute, the sound of slashing knives the next. It’s a strangely engrossing genre-bending exercise, where Satrapi plays both the prankster and showmaker. She also situates these articulate animals at the middle of the narrative like some sort of a joke, and any film with a talking cat and dog is certainly predestined to kickstart a collective eyeball-rolling, but no sooner than Bosco the dog begins sympathetically gushing niceties and Mr. Whiskers the cat starts spitting Scottish-accented, misanthropic expletives than you realise that Jerry’s no Doctor Dolittle. These voices are indeed figments of the protagonist’s psychopathically-inclined, fractured mind.
It’s in this terrain that The Voices has something interesting to say about psychology – the conflicted, warring factions of consciousness and the pure, inexorable id. In line with the spate of recent Sundance films that explore mental illness, Magic Magic and Frank, The Voices one-ups the game by focusing the perspective of the film mostly through Jerry’s eyes and his mental purview. The uneasy, inner debate about morality, the brief moments of surrealism, the squeaky-clean fantasy sequences and all the weirdness all make psychological sense – as they all mask a ghastly and gruesome reality occasionally witnessed by anyone else but Jerry. Let’s just say the quartet of women that surround Jerry’s life – Gemma Arterton’s vivacious English lass Fiona, Anna Kendrick’s sweetheart Lisa, Ella Smith’s buxom-heavy Alison and Jack Weaver’s good-natured therapist – all have a hell of a time finding out what Jerry is capable of doing. All the female acting counterparts are terrific, but it’s really Reynolds who step up and carry this show through and through. Typecast as a de facto, go-to Hollywood romantic comedy leading man, he deconstructs his own image and reveals some hidden depths rarely seen. And The Voices might just be his calling card for equally complex, if not better, roles in the years to come.