Jerry Hickfang, the protagonist of “The Voices,” is the type of man who gets really excited about leftover pizza and conga lines, who nurses an unrequited crush for the most attractive girl in the office but lives alone. Director Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”) could have made a very pleasant movie about Jerry Hickfang. But “The Voices,” available on most VOD services now, is not that movie. In “The Voices,” Jerry is also violently unstable.
When we are first introduced to Jerry, he is a low-level employee working in a rural bathtub factory. He is constantly avoiding eye contact, stooping over, and lowering his voice — like he is trying very hard to repress some vital part of himself. He is.
Jerry suffers from severe hallucinations where his cat, in a thick Scottish accent, instructs him to commit murder. This problem only intensifies when his office crush rejects his advances. Jerry eventually succumbs and commits some atrocious acts, but the film does not judge him harshly for these transgressions; it understands that his actions are the result of a traumatic childhood and an untreated mental illness.
We identify with Jerry despite his actions because Satrapi allows us to see the world through his eyes. When Jerry is having a good day, animated birds sing and dance around him. When Jerry’s cat talks to him, the cat is always center of the frame, commanding the screen in the same way that he commands Jerry.
Satrapi even uses color to help us sympathize with Jerry. In the opening of the film, we are introduced to Jerry as a bright dot of bubblegum pink fighting against the dull greys and browns of his surroundings. The entire drama of the story, that of a kind man trying to resist the lesser urges that constantly surround him, plays out for us chromatically.
Reynolds’ performance also goes a long way towards making Jerry a sympathetic character. He conveys Jerry’s chipper dialogue in a quiet, wistful manner that never allows the audience to forget that Jerry is profoundly sad and lonely. Then, during the few moments where Jerry is happy, Reynolds drops his low voice and breaks out into an infectious grin. It is impossible not to be moved.
Yet, despite the film’s many positive attributes, the majority of “The Voices” commits the cardinal sin of being dull. This is largely due to the screenplay by Michael R. Perry (“Paranormal Activity 2”). There are moments of dark comedy, but all the jokes are repetitive variations on the incongruity of a friendly man who is also a serial killer. There are also moments when Jerry’s violent delusions threaten other characters, but most of these moments fail to generate suspense. We have no reason to identify or sympathize with any of Jerry’s possible victims — we know very little about their personality, and what we do know makes them seem like jerks. When their lives are threatened, we are not emotionally engaged. This lack of humor or suspense is a massive problem for the film because it is supposed to be a horror-comedy. Without these elements, “The Voices” is merely a lot of cinematic dead-space.
Satrapi and Reynolds are clearly invested in Jerry. Jerry deserves this investment. He is a kind character, he is a smart character, and, most importantly of all, he is an interesting character. But, ultimately, “The Voices” cannot find anything interesting to do with him. Due to a poor plot, a movie that could have been great becomes merely watchable.
“The Voices” is currently available for rent on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.
Contact Raymond Maspons at raymondm ‘at’ stanford.edu