In The Voices (2014), Jerry’s cat and dog represent the opposing viewpoints of his personal conflict. Mr. Whiskers, his cat, argues that Jerry simply is who is, and should embrace his unmedicated schizophrenia and homicidal tendencies. Bosco, his dog, assures Jerry that he’s good man at heart. Michael R. Perry‘s script has its own conflict: does it want to be a story about an individual who has a debilitating illness, or a parable that forsakes the protagonist’s humanity for drama and larger social commentary? As much as Jerry struggles with the weight of his inner turmoil, The Voices struggles with what kind of film it wants to be. Director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) fleshes out this aspect of the screenplay, and thus makes crystal clear the flaws in Perry’s script.
The main issue is that the violence in the film is extraneous. Ironically, the dramatic moments where Jerry murders people are by far the most mundane because they’re the most cliche. They’re gruesome and heart-wrenching, sure, but also predictable and ultimately distracting from the human story. Worse, they’re in line with a tired discourse in media about violence and psychopathy. Trope-ic Thunder columnist and resident psychologist Drew Parton has discussed how most psychopaths are not violent criminals, yet the depiction of them in film and on television would indicate otherwise. Almost every non-supernatural movie or show about serial killers uses psychopathy as a get-out-of-character-writing-free card.
The Voices finds more humanity than many of those movies and shows, but still propagates that stereotype and forgets what makes it interesting. I cannot say whether its depiction of mental illness is accurate (that’s Drew’s area of expertise), but I can say that it isn’t new or insightful. There are violent schizophrenic people in the world, and Perry isn’t required to refute the stereotype, but stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Unfortunately, social context reveals this story’s cheap shots.
When the murder scenes are stripped away, the result is a more focused and effective depiction of schizophrenia’s crippling nature. Before any of the violence occurs, each scene is saturated with an undercurrent of unease, a sense that everything is off even though it all looks normal. I felt a similar sense of permeating dread during Take Shelter. Jerry’s workplace and apartment are normal enough, but the lighting isn’t quite right. The edits are occasionally jarring. The people who Jerry interacts with are well-written and clearly defined, but their behavior and motivations never quite make sense. All of these things capture Jerry’s perception of the world, and Satrapi does an excellent job using editing and cinematography for emphasis.
Her use of color is particularly powerful. In Jerry’s workplace, everyone wears vibrant pink, which resists most people’s expectations of a factory aesthetic. When coupled with the light blue walls, Satrapi invokes the color binary that is associated with gender roles, which hints at a dialogue about masculinity. In one visually striking scene, Jerry wears an orange shirt in the blue office, while his coworkers wear neutral colors. Because orange is the complementary color of blue, Jerry stands out from his environment—unlike the others, who blend in—emphasizing his disjuncture from the rest of the world.
Ryan Reynolds‘s performance as Jerry matches and even surpasses Satrapi’s deft approach to the material, embodying the heart of the film that gets masked by the “shocking” theatrics. His approach to Jerry is defined by empathy, even when Perry and Satrapi resist that sentiment. Jerry is always on the verge of laughter or tears, trying and often failing to cover up his psychological enslavement. As a result, we empathize with him, and the 107 minute run-time feels closer to a heart-wrenching 300 minutes.
Perhaps most indicative of Reynolds’ skill is when he screams at his cat. It’s the type of outburst that the Academy would play at the Oscars if the performance were nominated for Best Actor. The scream, though, isn’t what’s effective; rather, it’s the moment after, where Jerry’s eyes threaten to fill with tears and he can’t mask the complete and utter pain he experiences every waking second. Outbursts and words don’t define how we feel about characters as much as what happens after or in-between, and Reynolds recognizes this. As a result, he exhibits the maturity of film’s greatest performers.Fortunately, he’s not alone in the caliber of his performance, given that the consistently phenomenal Anna Kendrick makes the most of a quiet role.
However, the performances are undercut by the movie’s social context. I’m not just talking about portraying someone with schizophrenia as violent. Satrapi and Perry constantly hint at a contemporary discourse of mental illness, masculinity, and violence against women. I have no issue with addressing this important conversation. As much as Satrapi and Perry work hard to invoke that dialogue, though, they do nothing to contribute to it. Instead, much like the violence in general, it overpowers the human qualities by making generalized commentary about violence against women.
Consider the litany of examples: Jerry is mentally ill, and the majority of his acquaintances—not to mention all of his victims—are women. His pets are male, and reflect two masculine archetypes: Mr. Whiskers is the violent nihilist, while Bosco is the comfortingly masculine moralist (see: every character played by Sam Elliot). Jerry puts his victims’ heads in his fridge to talk to later. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first has brown hair; the second, blonde; and the third, red, as if he were completing a “collection”. His collection directly invokes the Women in Refrigerators trope.
Moreover, the murders of the first two women are highly sexualized (SPOILERS!): the first woman runs through the woods in a bustier, and when Jerry goes back later for her corpse, she is bloodless and swathed in heavenly white (referencing the “angels” his mother saw as a result of her own schizophrenia). The second woman is paralyzed when thrown onto a bed, and Jerry crawls in next to her. (END SPOILERS). The focus of his violence is gendered. Satrapi also invokes famous scenes from film history, most potently the famous shot of Mrs. Robinson’s leg in The Graduate. Here, the leg is actually severed from the woman’s corpse, and reflects the male fetishizing (literally treating something as a detached object) of the female body.
When these qualities are combined with the fear that drives Jerry—that he’ll be alone—Satrapi and Perry tap into the discourse that sits at the intersection of gender, psychology, and violence. Again, I have no issue with this out of hand. But ultimately, the film doesn’t enlighten the social context, and the social context doesn’t enlighten the film. These elements don’t give Jerry depth, but rather exist parallel to what we learn about him through his actions. Much like my issue with the violence’s distracting quality, I think that the attempt to add this layer of social commentary creates a parallel narrative rather than a more complex single narrative. The result is a conflict that damages the movie’s effect, rather than bolstering it.
Without all of the violence, I am sure that The Voices would not be the movie Satrapi and Perry wanted to make. However, I suspect it would have been a much more insightful and powerful one. The Voices is powerful, thought-provoking, affecting, and intelligent, but feels enslaved to the Hollywood-like story of a serial killer. I am reminded of story-writers who have a nugget of an idea, start writing a book, and then realize that their original idea is holding them back from all of the great things they have done as result. It’s an essential adage for authors that is often misattributed to Faulkner: kill your darlings. Perry might have misunderstood the meaning of this; instead of abandoning the elements of his script that don’t work, he took it as a suggestion to move the plot forward.
If Perry abandoned that angle, he would have a powerful story of a human being who tries to exist through a tortured existence. Without most of the violence—a flashback between Jerry and his mother is one of the most powerful in the film, but it’s diluted by the gore present in every other scene—Perry and Satrapi could have commented on mental illness, masculinity, and violence against women with the subtlety that Reynolds brings to his performance. But instead, those qualities take center stage, and all of the better ones have to wait for the spotlight, their voices never given the role that they deserve.