The Voices: The Discomfort In Being Sad
Jerry seems like a nice guy. He works at a bathtub factory in Milton and lives in the upstairs apartment of an old bowling alley with his two pets, Bosco (the boxer) and Mr. Whiskers (the yellow tabby cat). Jerry is kind of shy and awkward, but his therapist encourages him to participate in planning the annual office picnic. Jerry is also smitten with Fiona, the beautiful English woman who works with him, and hopes that he’ll be able to woo her with his humble charms.
The Voices begins like a sweet romantic comedy with a slightly dark undertone. As Jerry, Ryan Reynolds is less Green Lantern and more Clark Kent. We find out right away that he talks to Bosco and Mr. Whiskers and that they talk back. We figure he’s got some kind of schizophrenia, which is confirmed when he fudges the details about hearing voices and taking his meds. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until Fiona is revealed to be something of a self-centered creep and Jerry accidentally-on-purpose stabs her to death.
It’s a shocking scene in a movie that, up until that point, feels like a quirky art-house film. Director Marjane Satrapi and writer Michael R. Perry shift the tone of The Voices in an uncomfortable direction, one that almost feels like it was borrowed from another genre. It’s a stylistic gamble that actually pays off due to Ryan Reynolds’ sympathetic portrayal of Jerry and some straightforward talk about mental illness.
In her review of The Voices, The Spectator’s Deborah Ross doesn’t mince words about how much she “bitterly” resents having to watch the movie at all, describing it as “hateful” and “repellent” and singling out its tone shift for particular condemnation. I have to wonder if we saw the same movie. There are certainly horror films that seem to glorify the killer’s grisly acts or which revel in misogyny for misogyny’s sake (the recent remake of Maniac, for example), but The Voices doesn’t even show most of the crimes that Jerry commits. The majority of his murders take place off screen and he clearly, obviously, and repeatedly regrets the killing.
Terrible acts have been committed by those who have felt compelled to kill because of a mental health condition and many of the victims’ families have a hard time understanding what could drive someone to do those terrible things. I only need to say the names “Vince Weiguang Li” or “Rohinie Bisesar” to evoke a visceral reaction in certain people. The Voices, however, doesn’t ask us to forgive anyone’s crimes; it offers a window into the interior life of someone who commits murder at the behest of the voices in his head. It also shows how even those who aren't subject to delusions have inner voices which can cause immense psychological harm.
The world in which unmedicated Jerry lives is bright and cheery; the world in which medicated Jerry lives is like something out of Hoarders. Without his ongoing interactions with Bosco and Mr. Whiskers, Jerry feels frighteningly and overwhelmingly alone. That’s what taking medication does to him.
No doubt we’ve heard the stories of schizophrenics who don’t take their meds because it makes them feel weird, depressed, different, or miserable. Satrapi and Perry make this visually apparent through the reality of Jerry’s decrepit, disgusting apartment while Reynolds successfully conveys to us what it feels like to be trapped in that dismal world.
His hallucinatory flashbacks to the unfortunate demise of his mother at his own hands are heartbreaking, especially when Jerry’s hateful, abusive stepfather is depicted as exacerbating the situation. How could we not feel sorry for what Jerry went through, none of which was his own fault?
Once the depths of Jerry’s disease and despair have been revealed, the comedy in The Voices feels more like the only way he can escape his tortured existence. It’s the fear of being alone that drives him to resist taking his meds, to continue seeking that fantasy world with Bosco, Mr. Whiskers, and the love and affection of a genuinely nice co-worker named Lisa. It’s a fear that we can all relate to, whether or not we suffer from the delusions of paranoid schizophrenia and it’s what makes The Voices so smart and ultimately, so special.