‘The Voices’ Gets to the Very Essence of the American Nightmare

Disturbing, funny, alluring and repulsive in a uniquely American way that no one likes to admit, The Voices should trouble you.
2015-02-06 (Limited)

The guy in the seat behind/above me seemed like he was about to vomit on my head—”Oh,” he muttered helplessly, “Oh God”—and then, within a minute or two, he was guffawing like a horse. I don’t remember the last time this happened at the movies, but then, this was a screening of The Voices, the dark—way, way, way dark—comedy starring Ryan Reynolds that resists any easy assessment, no matter how much we’re inclined to give it one. Disturbing, funny, alluring and repulsive in a uniquely American way that no one likes to admit, The Voices should trouble you. That’s the point of a dark comedy.

Our tenuous grip on reality, the falsehood of our good intentions, our total inability to trust ourselves—nobody wants to hear about that, which might explain why this film has had such a limited release.

In full disclosure, I should mention that I was invited to this local screening by a relative of the film’s screenwriter, Michael R. Perry. To counteract that, let me also mention that I’ve never enjoyed a single performance by Reynolds. I expected to be disappointed.

Nope. Reynolds was compelling, embodying all of the film’s complexity. The actor takes on the challenge of playing a clichéd “sympathetic serial killer” character with none of the real charm and intelligence available in Dexter Morgan or Hannibal Lecter. Instead, he can only work with Jerry Hickfang’s brew of innocence, confusion, horror, rage, and desperation to be happy. Avoiding his antipsychotic medication, Jerry sees his humdrum life in the packing and shipping department of a bathtub manufacturer as a Technicolor, hi-def, Candyland of optimism. That’s the only charm he’s got, and it’s an illusion.

It’s a shame that Reynolds’ performance might go unnoticed since The Voices, which premiered over a year ago at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, is already out of circulation in American theatres, though it’s available on demand. Hiding the worst of himself, Jerry wears many faces, and Reynolds earns them all, from the dead-eyed gaze of the psychopath to the glimpse of joy he finds watching a Vegas-era Elvis impersonator in an Asian restaurant. Midway through the film, Reynolds unleashes a primal scream; his face goes blank and then sucks into itself, all of Jerry’s pretense gone, nothing left but the frustrated boy he’s never been able to outrun.

Right, the plot. Thinking he’s been stood up by his co-worker at the bathtub factory, the British ex-pat Fiona, Jerry leaves the Chinese restaurant after a downpour and finds Fiona by her broken-down car. The reticent Fiona, played with nuance by Gemma Arterton, actually starts to warm up to him, and as you do often in the first half of the film, you think Jerry’s luck might be turning. But when a freak accident plunges a deer into the front seat of Jerry’s truck, he gruesomely ends the creature’s suffering. (Not his first time, thus the childhood trauma.) Repulsed, Fiona bolts into the woods… and since you’ve probably seen the publicity still of her severed head on Jerry’s countertop, I’m not giving much away when I reveal that he murders her, though the scene is oddly tender and helpless.

It also begins Jerry’s descent into hell, his battle between morality and total destruction. As you also probably know, this is vocalized by Jerry’s talking pets, the “good boy” encouragement of his dog, Bosco, and the “kill everything” ruthlessness of his cat, Mr. Whiskers, who speaks in a Scottish accent. (Reynolds does their voices.)

When Jerry’s all-American co-worker Lisa, played by Anna Kendrick, takes a shine to him, you think for a few minutes that Jerry might be able to hide his dark side and Fiona’s neatly packaged remains from her. Or from his court-appointed therapist, Dr. Warren, played by Jackie Weaver. At this point, The Voices becomes predictable; where it’s headed—down—is never in doubt, but how it gets there and what lines it’s willing to cross along the way are still unnerving. The real terror is not Jerry’s failure, but his struggle.

The Voices is directed by Marjane Satrapi, author of the acclaimed graphic memoir Persepolis. Go ahead and ask it: Why Satrapi? She co-directed the animated film adaptation of Persepolis and the live-action adaptation of Chicken with Plums, and directed Gang of Jotas on her own, but none of that helps explain why the Iranian-born veteran of the French bande dessinée scene chose The Voices. What might help is Satrapi’s sharp visual acumen, her eye for the right detail, like the neatly stacked Tupperware containers of Fiona.

But more than that, I think, her nerve steadies the erratic elements of this dark comedy. If you’ve heard Satrapi speak, you know she’s deeply intelligent, funny, and remarkably honest; she is a great rambler, possessing no censor, only a sizable self-awareness. Working in the shocker genre of horror-comedy, Satrapi keeps the scenes of violence against the women characters blunt but not exploitative. If Fiona’s death is sexualized, that quality arises from character, not spectator, desire, and it has an undeniably tragic gloss. Smart and eccentric, the movie never apologizes for being itself.

So what is it being? The traditional purpose of dark comedy goes beyond shock, which is just a tool. Andre Breton defined the term humour noir as a skeptical aesthetic response to the traditional illusions we comfort ourselves with in the face of disaster, especially the disaster of death. The Voices traces this purpose back to Breton’s source of black humor, Jonathan Swift and his satirical essay, A Modest Proposal, and a social critique. The film’s skepticism takes aim at the quintessential myth of American innocence, our belief as a culture that we know ourselves well enough to be confident in our virtue and that we’re a country of good intentions.

In The Voices, good intentions are not enough. Not everyone in the film is a liar, or guilty to the core; that would be pure cynicism. But is it any easier a pill to swallow that The Voices puts Jerry’s guilt into question, pitting his childhood trauma and present-day helplessness against the fact that he chooses not to take his medication because it reveals the world as it really is: dull and washed-out, a kind of eternally cloudy mid-November?

Seducing us into sympathy for Jerry, The Voices questions our potential for irrationality and suggests that we might choose it instead of loneliness and sorrow. Doing so, we might unwittingly choose violence, which means we’re all capable of becoming killers. Do we not all hear voices that are just random thoughts, shocking sentiments, imaginings, beliefs we don’t really believe, murmurings of our subconscious? (Forget the cat-and-dog schtick, which would be more surprising if the dog was murderous, the cat sweet.) How thin is the line between keeping the voices at bay and letting them loose?

“The prescriptions!” I hear you saying. It’s not that thin of a line! Take the damn prescription! At first I thought the depiction of mental illness in The Voices fell into the trap of stereotype: the lurking violence of the “crazy” individual who is one coincidence, one terrible accident from snapping. This was complicated for me by a conversation after the screening: is the movie about a serial killer or a mentally ill person? Or both? My thoughts weren’t immediately cleared up by a response on the subject by Satrapi during a recent interview:

I have to say, this is obviously not a film about schizophrenia, because if I wanted to make a film about schizophrenia then I would make [that] film. That [would mean] I am really responsible. It’s about somebody who’s a psycho, let’s say. You know? I made lots of reassertions. People, they don’t take medicine because this medicine has lots of side effects. On top of that they’re all alone, so who will push them to take them? Nobody. This guy is all alone, by himself, so he tries to do his best and he doesn’t succeed. Is he a monster? No, he’s just sick. So it’s more about the loneliness. I think therapy can be really good but we have to treat sick people like sick people, we cannot just call them monsters. — (“The Voices: Marjane Satrapi on Cats, Therapy & Tupperware“, by William Bibbiani, Crave, 5 February 2015)

To explain her point, Satrapi pointed to a scene near the film’s end, when Dr. Warren desperately tells Jerry, “Jerry, being lonely in the world is the root of all suffering, but you are not alone.” “And we’re like, ‘You fucking liar,'” says Satrapi. “This is exactly the problem, that he’s alone.”

But Jerry seems fated to be alone; he’s already passed a point of no return, the film suggests, once he and Fiona crash into the deer, maybe even before that. There is no on-med reality that succeeds for him. His loneliness might have been cured by the perky Lisa, but it’s too late for that, too. Does this doomed quality reinforce a negative essentialism about mental illness? Does it neglect the helpfulness of psychopharmacology?

Arguing over the accuracy of the film’s representation of mental illness is beside the point, though, if The Voices is a bad dream about American culture. Aiming to eviscerate the pleasantries of American culture, the film’s target is cultural, unseen, seething, and not individual, literal, or exterior. Yes, the film presents a tug-of-war between reality and unreality, the battle between the sad truth of Jerry’s shambles of an apartment and the pink-coverall spectacle of his unfiltered psychosis, but this seems to me ultimately symbolic. Both are private visions that in this aesthetic work speak to the subversive side of public, social life. With no pretense of being truthful about anything other than the American nightmares we possess and the innocence we would prefer to see, The Voices is not information, but a dark myth.

Our tenuous grip on reality, the falsehood of our good intentions, our total inability to trust ourselves—nobody wants to hear about that, which might explain why the film has had such a limited release. It might also explain why some critics have missed the point entirely, seeking verisimilitude where there is only metaphor. One NPR critic dismisses the film as a “parody of small-town America” that fails because its vision is “clearly a European product”. (“In ‘The Voices,’ The Dog And The Cat Talk, But The Film Says Little“, by Mark Jenkins, 5 February 2015)

What a remarkable statement! It not only falls into the classic auteurist trap of the director being the “author” of the film, it insults Satrapi’s acumen and misses the film’s intent. (Having met Satrapi here in Columbus, I can confirm that she’s been in the States, if you find that a helpful thing to know.) The venerable A.O. Scott over at the New York Times opines that “(t)he bright colors and the fanciful, exaggerated Middle American setting are about as fresh as thrift-shop castoffs”—sure, because one often finds pink coveralls at Volunteers of America—and that “the story… is too far-fetched to be disturbing and too banal to work as fantasy.” (“The Cat Made Him Do It“, 5 February 2015)

But in The Voices, both fantasy and reality are banal; Jerry’s “fantasy” is getting a date with the pretty girl(s) in the office and his pets talking to him, which most of us pretend they do anyway, and while his reality is gruesome and tragic, it’s also dirty and small and disturbingly normal. That’s the kicker, that’s the horror.

Both critics miss that the dead-end town that bores Fiona so much is not “small-town America”, but all of America. America as a nowhere, a dream about a dream about an entire country filled with things to do that mean nothing. In the social reality that is The Voices’ setting, the gleaming dullness of a bathtub factory, a conga line at an office party, and the woodland meadow that briefly hides Fiona’s death all expose only two commonalities: our isolation and our desperation.

Ultimately, reviews like these and many others, including those that give the ol’ thumbs-up to The Voices, epitomize what the film and other films like it are up against. Their criticisms are banal because their vision of art is banal; they assume a stance of innocence and cannot fathom their implication, since their real subject is not the aesthetic but the celebrity-centric, extra-aesthetic culture that squeezes out every last drop of imagination and danger from a work of art. This is how you end up scoffing at the transgressions in The Voices, rolling your eyes as a woman dies painfully, her eyes blank and hard. And you know what? In the American Wow culture that fulfills the prophecy of Guy Debord’s spectacle, I guess that’s not an unexpected reaction. But I can tell you it wasn’t the reaction of the 60 or so people I watched the film with.

No amount of glamour, no retreat into the spectacle of American pop culture, the American Wow, can redeem our nightmares, and as if to test that, the film’s credits feature a bouncy dance number set to the O’Jays’ “Sing a Happy Song”, which vaguely recalls the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” ending of Life of Brian. “Does this help?” the film seems to ask, but you’re left bewildered rather than edified, disturbed instead of charmed. For all of its humor, the film’s brutality is that the humor never saves or frees us. There’s no getting out.

Except when the film is over, which is when I ran to the movie theatre bar for a whiskey. No ice.