There are three messages to take away from "The Voices." One: Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian filmmaker whose autobiographical "Persepolis" made waves a few years ago, is a major directorial talent. Two: there is a demented screenwriter named Michael R. Perry who should probably be on some kind of watch list. Three: if Ryan Reynolds will keep making risky, offbeat aberrations like this, we'll overlook the "Green Lantern"s and "R.I.P.D."s and love him forever.
Here is a pitch-black psycho-horror-comedy to restore one's faith in the "What the eff did I just watch?" genre. Set in a wholesome American town (the praises of which are sung in an opening theme song [!]), the film stars Reynolds as Jerry Hickfang, a smiling, awkward, not-quite-all-there fellow with a low-level factory job. He's just out of prison on a work-release program and has a regular appointment with a court-ordered psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver), but he seems harmless enough. He goes through life in a bit of a daze, attended by imaginary butterflies, and has a cute crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a beautiful brunette from the accounting department.
Also, his cat speaks to him. Abusively, hilariously, and with a Scottish accent. Mr. Whiskers harangues Jerry the same way that Mrs. Bates belittled Norman, and to similar effect. (His dog talks, too, but as you'd expect, he's supportive and optimistic.) Jerry's mother also heard voices, and Jerry has medication that silences them. But when he's medicated, his bright, TV-like world turns dark, and he gets lonely. The only real problem with having Mr. Whiskers talk to him is that Mr. Whiskers, being a cat and a natural killer, has some violent suggestions.
There are a number of directions you could go with this premise. Perry's screenplay, named one of the best unproduced scripts of 2009, probably doesn't go where you think it will (or at least doesn't take the route you'd expect). Unsettling flashbacks shed light on what made Jerry the way he is, explaining the twisted logic that his subconscious now repeats to him through the voice of his cat. The plot veers madly between dark comedy and graphic horror, and Satrapi handles the tonal shifts with expert skill. She doesn't wallow in the pain -- like Jerry, the director doesn't like to see any living thing suffer -- but she's not afraid to spray the screen with blood when the situation calls for it, and to make us squirm with the grimly funny (but awful) logistical details of Jerry's deeds.
Reynolds is more than just serviceable as Jerry; he's genuinely great, fully committed to the emotions of the role as he avoids both the campiness and the over-the-top evil that could have crept in. Jerry sweetly tries to woo the unresponsive Fiona, oblivious to the affection another co-worker (Anna Kendrick) has for him, all while trying to ignore Mr. Whiskers' goading and lying to the shrink when she asks whether he hears voices. Even when we're horrified by what Jerry is doing, Reynolds makes us understand him.
And then, just when it seems like the story is wrapping up in a disappointingly conventional fashion, the film goes full nutso for an incredibly bizarre, high-energy finale. It's simultaneously a happy ending and a deeply disturbing one, and it makes perfect sense given what we've already seen. The movie isn't for everyone (to put it mildly). But if you're up for a loopy, ghastly, funny, morbid, and unforgettable 100 minutes, you might find that "The Voices" speaks to you.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10