Sub-Cult #6 The Voices (2014)

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I first experienced the demented 2014 dark comedy The Voices in perhaps the ideal setting. I had the honor of being present at its debut, as a rapturously received midnight screening at the 2014 Sundance, with director Marjane Satrapi, best known as the author and subject of the acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis as well as its acclaimed, award-winning feature film adaptation, in attendance. 

It was an unforgettable experience I half-remember and if I’m not mistaken at least some of the cast was there as well, and possibly the animals to boot, and maybe Deadpool was there as well? You can’t keep that guy down! He’s an irrepressible scamp who cannot be confined to the world of fiction. He’s THAT powerful. Look behind you. No, seriously, look behind you. He’s there, isn’t he? And I’m guessing he’s probably up to mischief! 

The Voices star Ryan Reynolds had already played the Merc with the Mouth in a version everyone rightfully hated in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and while the Van Wilder and Waiting alum had quietly wracked up a series of impressive, challenging performances in sleepers like The Nines, Adventureland, Buried, The Voices and Mississippi Grind, he would not catapult to proper superstardom until 2016’s Deadpool. 

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Laughing and gasping at The Voices along with a packed audience I felt like I was watching a sure-fire cult classic. Then again, pretty much every oddball comedy and funky thriller that screens at Sundance feels like a cult classic in the making. Robert Redford’s American institution is an artificially supportive, positive ecosystem where lovers of independent film, however loosely defined, are actively rooting for these scruffy little underdogs to succeed, to break out of the Sundance ghetto and become the next Sex, Lies and Videotape instead of Happy, Texas. 

No one was delusional enough to imagine that a movie as strange and dark and uncompromising as The Voices was going to challenge box-office records but it seemed to have everything necessary to become a cult phenomenon, a midnight movie for the ages. The Voices doesn’t  just center on a talking cat, or rather, a talking cat?!?: it focusses on a psychotic talking cat named Mister Whiskers with a pronounced Scottish accent (voiced by Reynolds as part of an impressive triple performance) who encourages his fragile, mentally ill owner to kill, and then keep on killing. 

Reynolds also voices Bosco, a big, dopey looking dog with a dopey voice who encourages his owner to follow the straight and narrow and refrain from killing people, no matter the cost. Reynolds also plays Jerry Hickfang, an earnest, deeply mentally ill young man who wants to do good, to be good, but is driven by dark compulsions to do very bad. 

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The conventional wisdom with serial killers is that they always seem like the last one you’d suspect. In true serial killer form, Jerry is nice, quiet and keeps to himself but if you were to ask neighbors and co-workers about him I suspect they’d say that he gives off a definite serial killer vibe and they wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that he keeps the disembodied heads of his victims in his refrigerator. 

Jerry has a tragic crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a sardonic British beauty who barely tolerates his schoolyard crush on her. Jerry also has a tragic family history, a tragic past, a tragic present and a tragic future. Jerry has a tragic aura. Basically everything about him is tragic so now mature how ferociously he wants to overcome his demons, doom is inevitable. There are no happy endings for men like him.

It’s not easy for a man as ridiculously good-looking and confident as Ryan Reynolds, a movie star who married Scarlett Johansson and Blake Lively (but not at the same time) to convincingly play someone who is not a cop, or a superhero or someone whose thriving livelihood is largely dependent on being model-gorgeous and confident even for a good-looking straight white man. How strange that the most attractive people in the world are also disproportionately so good at acting. 

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Jerry is the farthest thing from a normal guy. He’s plagued with intense mental illness,  has quite the accidental body count and counts an evil talking cat and a good talking dog among his closest confidantes and most frequent conversational partners. Yet despite the enormous handicap of being preposterously handsome Reynolds convincingly inhabits the sweaty, uncertain skin and fractured, violently divided psyche of a sad, desperate small town loser, a haunted schmuck with a sad little life careening carelessly into the abyss. 

Jerry accidentally kills Fiona, who ends up taking unhappy residency as a talking disembodied head in Jerry’s refrigerator. Jerry is the ultimate unreliable narrator, a man whose conception and comprehension of reality vacillates wildly depending on whether or not he’s taken medication that flattens him out and takes much of the ineffable beauty out of the universe and existence.

Jerry is perversely rewarded by an insane universe with Lisa (Anna Kendrick), a gorgeous coworker who finds her coworker so adorable and endearing that she’s willing, even eager to overlook his whole serial killer vibe for the sake of having a boyfriend who is handsome and nice that she can make out at work with.

Lisa, alas, meets the same fate of everyone who gets too close to Jerry. Every accidental killing sends Jerry hurtling further into oblivion, past the point of no return. 

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Reynolds, Satrapi and screenwriter Michael R. Perry, a television vet whose only other major screenplay credit is Paranormal Activity 2, make Jerry far more sympathetic and relatable than he really has any right being. Perhaps it’s the tenor of the times but it felt strange and more than a little disconcerting identifying with a man with an unfortunate predilection for killing women. True, Jerry is driven to do unforgivable things by profound mental illness but he’s still a killer who seems like an overwhelmed but fundamentally well-meaning child even when committing horrible crimes. Reynolds somehow manages to convey child-like innocence even while being guilty as sin.

In a bravura, revelatory performance, Reynolds captures the all-consuming vulnerability that comes with not being able to trust your own thoughts or your instincts, in being powerless before your dark compulsions, fatally unable to tame or control the monster within. 

I fuzzily but affectionately remembered The Voices as a ghoulish, blood-splattered dark comedy in the vein of early Coen Brothers. There’s certainly a strong element of that in the film along with a surprising amount of horror and moody psychodrama. I’m not sure if that’s because the film was changed from its Sundance premiere and its theatrical release or if my memory is faulty. 

Alternately, it’s entirely possible that I remembered The Voices as being sad and surprisingly emotional but also extremely wacky because it ends in pretty much the glibbest, wackiest fashion possible.

After pretty much everyone dies our doomed cast reunites in the after life where there is no more suffering and everyone is dressed to party alongside special guest Jesus Christ. No longer separated from their heads or bodies, the cast moves and grooves ecstatically to the pulsating soul sounds of “Sing a Happy Song.”

You could argue that this moment reflects Jerry’s most profound disconnect from reality, that in the film’s final moments our cursed, luckless anti-hero experiences a total break from the sad, sordid ugliness of his life and the world he was doomed to inhabit and into a world of pure, delusional bliss.

But it feels more to me like The Voices is closing a surprisingly heartfelt, powerful and poignant exploration of uncontrollable violence and alienation with a big old wink to the audience to let them know that it’s all been a lark, a goof, a gag, a laugh-em-up, a giant giggle, some blood-splattered tomfoolery to help pass the time. 

In that respect, this hopelessly glib cast sing-along undermines the core of deep, genuine sadness that makes The Voices surprisingly resonant, even quietly heart-breaking. Psycho sure as shit didn’t end with the cast singing an upbeat soul song. True, it has a shitty ending of its own, with a psychiatrist explaining what we’ve just seen in a way that robs it of some of its mystery and menace but at least it did not close on such a massive wink. 

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The Voices has the courage of its convictions. It almost feels like Perry channelled every last bit of his personality and soul into one screenplay after making a dirty living in television for decades. So the ending can’t help but feel like a cop-out.

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The Voices has not become the cult favorite I imagined it would despite its star becoming a huge cult figure in his own right, as well as a bankable movie star. That’s okay. The Voices has all the time in the world to find its cult and its following, and a movie this weird and weirdly soulful is bound to be discovered not by a large audience or a mainstream audience but by the right audience, an indulgent and appreciative audience for whom it’s not possible to ever go too far, only not far enough. 

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