Jerry Hickfang is a handsome, socially awkward, overly cheerful factory worker with a cat named Mr. Whiskers who speaks with a Scottish accent, a lovable bull mastiff that sounds like Gary Busey when he talks, and an expanding collection of talking severed heads in his refrigerator.
No, I really mean it. “The Voices” is a deeply warped, darkly funny and thoroughly depraved horror comedy from the Paris-based, Iranian director/comic book artist Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”), and whether you find this sort of thing walk-out-of-the-theater distasteful or wickedly subversive, I’m fairly confident we won’t see another movie like it for quite some time.
Ryan Reynolds gives one of his best performances as Jerry, the new guy at a bathroom fixtures factory that looks like something Wes Anderson would envision if he were slumming it. The warehouse hands wear pink jumpsuits, a company party includes a slaphappy conga line, and at times the forklifts move about in choreographed fashion a la Busby Berkeley — or at least they do through Jerry’s eyes.
We know from the start there’s something a little … off about Jerry. He’s too enthusiastic about the smallest things at work, he’s hopelessly awkward when courting Fiona (Gemma Arterton), the cheeky woman in accounting, and he meets regularly with a sympathetic therapist (Jacki Weaver) who is encouraged by Jerry’s progress but asks him if he’s hearing voices and reminds him that if he doesn’t take his medication, she’ll have to alert the proper authorities.
The bouncy soundtrack gives “The Voices” a sunny, indie-rom-com feel, which seems to jibe perfectly with Jerry’s upbeat personality. (“The back of your hair looks GREAT!” he says in all sincerity to a co-worker who is completely bald in front and on top.) Things are looking up for Jerry! Fiona seems to be enjoying his attentions even though it’s pretty clear to everyone but Jerry that she’s just toying with him, and another co-worker, the sweet and lovely Lisa (Anna Kendrick), has a genuine crush on Jerry.
Once Jerry’s home alone, however, we’re in bizarre territory. Mr. Whiskers the cat encourages Jerry to act on his evil urges, while Bosco the dog tells Jerry he’s a good person and it’s not fault when terrible things occur.
Reminder: This is not an animated film. Mr. Whiskers is a real cat and Bosco is a real dog — but through Jerry’s twisted prism, the voices in his head are manifested through his pets. One represents his darkest urges; one is his conscience.
When Jerry runs into a deer on the highway and the wounded deer pleads with Jerry to kill him and put him out of his misery, it sets off a chain of events where Jerry starts offing human beings, even as he tells himself it’s not really his fault.
Adapting a boldly creative screenplay from Michael R. Petty, director Satrapi nimbly walks the tightrope between satire and serious psychological thriller. The flashback scenes revealing Jerry’s tragic childhood are handled in straightforward (albeit horrific) fashion. There’s no attempt to make excuses for Jerry’s actions as an adult, but we understand why he’s so damaged and destructive.
Reynolds is a quick wit and a smooth onscreen presence, but he can be his own worst enemy by being too smug by half. (He’s like the cinematic descendant of Chevy Chase.) Here, though, he strikes just the right tones. Whether Jerry is trying to fit in at work, giving into his most violent urges or carrying on conversations with pets and severed heads, we believe Jerry believes it’s perfectly natural and real.
This is a pop version of “Psycho,” right through a closing credits musical number so wrong and yet so perfect. I’m still humming the damn thing despite myself.