At one point in The Voices, Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) sits down on his sofa with his dog and cat to watch TV. A montage of animals mating. He changes the channel, at his cat’s request (also voiced by Reynolds), landing on a shark devouring a seal; sex and death are the twin desires that drive The Voices. Set in Milton, a small town where the only remaining industry is a bathtub factory, it follows Jerry as he hears his cat and dog talking to him, leading to a woman’s head in his fridge (Gemma Arterton). Outwardly, Jerry is your typical Nice Guy: quiet, bumbling, harbouring an awkward crush on his co-worker. But these are only the visible symptoms of a deeper sickness – not only Jerry’s schizophrenia (which, talking pets aside, he has under control at the beginning of the film) but his repressed sexuality which can only express itself in violence – and as this comes to the surface the film slides from comedy into dark drama.
Ryan Reynolds is a character actor too often trapped in leading man roles; when he’s allowed to do interesting indie parts like The Nines (2007) or Buried (2010) the results are always interesting, especially compared to bland big budget misfires like Green Lantern (2011). Here he’s on triple duty – Jerry and the voices of his pets – and his charisma and versatility are vital to the film working. Few actors, handsome or not, could pull off a scene where they cheerfully talk to their murder victim’s head over a morning bowl of cereal. Reynolds can. (He also claims the best special feature on the DVD – we’re shown Reynolds in the recording booth, actually contorting his face to convey the dimness of Bosco the dog.) Gemma Arterton likewise takes a superficially repellent, in this case bitchy, character and imbues her with a real sadness, whereas Anna Kendrick has a consistently likeable presence.
The film has a unique blend of tones, where some of the most horrific scenes are also the funniest. But, to the credit of writer Michael R. Perry and director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Jerry’s mental illness is never the punchline. His backstory is unexpectedly tragic and moving for a film with such a goofy premise. Our sympathies are constantly being challenged, forcing us to become a participant in the story. Milton is a visually offbeat but believable place, where muted brown tones of a small town are only punctuated every so often by bright pink uniforms, spurts of blood or an Elvis impersonator at a Chinese restaurant. The sound design is similarly sparse, and the lack of music is particularly noticeable, again leaving the audience unsure of where a scene is heading, where to laugh, where to cry. The result is that it’s not quite a comedy, not quite horror, not quite a drama – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s deliberately off-putting and will no doubt polarise viewers right up to the closing credits (literally), but those with a wicked sense of humour will get a lot out of it.