The Voices (2014)

The Voices first published by Sight & Sound, April 2015

Review: Franco-Persian filmmaker Marjane Satrapi is best known for the animated feature Persepolis (2007) and its stylised live-action follow-up Chicken With Plums (2011), both adapted from her own graphic novels, both co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, and both dealing in their different ways with the experience of an exile from Iran. Satrapi’s second solo outing as a director (following The Gang of the Jotas, 2012), The Voices is her first film to have been written entirely by someone else (Michael R. Perry, Paranormal Activity 2), and to have been made in the English language. Yet the theme of dislocation that dominates her other films remains to the fore here too.

The Voices starts with a very strong sense of place: a roadway sign that reads, “Welcome to Milton, the town of industry”, accompanied on the soundtrack by Milton’s very own (ultra-cheesy) theme song. Surrounded by woodland, Milton is a candy-coloured slice of hyperreal Americana where even the local bathroom fixtures factory comes with full-pink uniform overalls, office corridor conga lines, and forklifts (also pink) that move crated products about in a carefully choreographed three-step. Or perhaps this is just how ever-smiling Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) sees things – a happy-go-lucky worker in ‘boxing and shipping’ who also just happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic prone to delusions.

The condition is a legacy of his late mother, torn apart by the decision of whether to stay in her beloved Berlin, or to follow her army husband to the US. Jerry’s life is full of maddening dilemmas too. He opts for pizza, burgers and other junkfood, even though he keeps hearing that there are better things to eat. He is crazy about bad girl Fiona (Gemma Arterton) from accounts, even though it is clear that her colleague, the all-round good girl Lisa (Anna Kendrick), is far more into him. He knows he should take his meds, but the world becomes less shiny and fun whenever he is off them. And he cannot decide whether he is more a cat person or a dog person – which is to say that when his good-natured bulldog Bosco encourages him to be a ‘moral person’ while his foul-mouthed, Scots-accented cat Mr Whiskers urges him just to murder people instead, Jerry can find himself feeling very conflicted.

Like the goods that he packs and stacks, or the bodies that he chops into Tupperware containers, Jerry keep the different aspects of his life neatly compartmentalised – although at times the underlying mess bleeds through. Most of what we see onscreen derives from Jerry’s frazzled perspective, through which every office banality, every restaurant outing and every murderous act is presented as an “awesome show” pitched somewhere between Disney and disco. In reconfiguring serial killer thrills as camp-tastic fun, Satrapi offers a refreshing take on smalltown psychopathy, full of postmodern ironies that subsequently replay in the mind with deeper ambiguity. After all, if Jerry can create a Scottish accent for his cat and an English accent for Fiona’s decapitated head, who knows where his imagination ends? Shot entirely in Berlin locations, fictional Milton might, in all its manic day-glo inauthenticity, just be a refuge constructed by Jerry (the German) from the confines of a padded cell to stave off his loneliness (a recurrent theme) and exile from reality. A prisoner of his own mind, Jerry, along with his mother, may never even have left Berlin; but he and Satrapi have elaborated a hilariously artificial, improbably upbeat means of escape and even of redemption – in a film that transcends taste and cross-dresses genre.

Synopsis: Milton, an industrial town in America. Unbeknownst to his co-workers at a bathroom fixtures factory, Jerry is a paranoid schizophrenic, as was his Berlin-born mother. Not even his psychiatrist Dr Warren knows that he is off his meds and in regular conversations with his good-natured dog and foul-mouthed cat (the latter repeatedly proposing acts of homicide). After a date goes wrong with British co-worker Fiona, Jerry accidentally kills her and chops up the body. The cat, and Fiona’s head, urge him to kill more people. Jerry starts a relationship with another colleague, Lisa, but when she sees the bloody state of his home, he kills her too – and then a third co-worker, Alison. Jerry abducts Dr Warren but, beleaguered by the police, chooses to burn to death. In heaven, he dances with his parents, his victims, and Jesus.

© Anton Bitel