I’ve talked about the weird overlap between horror and comedy before, and how the two genres often work together. But usually when they work best, it’s when one or the other is at the forefront; either a comedic film with horror elements, or a horror film with comedic elements. What’s relatively rarer, and somewhat surprisingly so, is the full black comedy in horror, much less a tragic comedy in horror. It’s probably a harder trick to pull off because it’s especially unsettling when it does happen.
The Voices focuses on Jerry, a pleasant but somewhat shy factory worker in a rather dilapidated post-industrial town. It’s clear early on that Jerry is somewhat…off, in comparison to his co-workers, and part of his employment seems to be supervised by a court appointed psycho-therapist. During planning for a company picnic, Jerry develops a crush on a coworker, Fiona (and remains completely oblivious to the crush coworker Lisa has on him in turn). At home, Jerry lives in a modest apartment over a bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers. Who talk to him. Bosco is warm and supportive, while Mr. Whiskers is cynical, and both attempt to guide Jerry through his crush on Fiona, who, frankly, is rather creeped out by him. Tragically, while giving Fiona a ride home from work one night, Jerry hits a deer. When Fiona sees Jerry kill the deer (to put it out of it’s misery, as he “heard” it ask him), she runs into the night, and is badly injured by Jerry on accident. And so he puts Fiona out of her misery as well. At home, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers argue over what Jerry should do next, with Bosco advocating going to the police, and Mr. Whiskers urging Jerry to become a serial killer, and Fiona’s severed head chiming in as well. A relationship with Lisa offers Jerry some hope, but that too ends tragically, setting off a chain reaction which eventually leads to the discovery of what Jerry has done. In the end, cornered by the police and trapped in a burning building, Jerry decides to lay down and allow himself to die, as it’s the only way he feels he can be trusted not to hurt anyone else.
Jerry is an intensely sympathetic figure, so when his mistakes turn violent, you feel the horror of it. He’s a bright, friendly man, who sees the world in a fundamentally good way, and there’s a grim, inescapable tragedy to everything that happens that follows from that. Jerry wants to do good, and is trying to do good, but is in a place where he doesn’t understand enough of the context of what is happening to see the wrongness of his actions. In a brilliant and subtle use of visuals, when we see the world through Jerry’s eyes, it’s bright and shining and colorful. When Jerry isn’t around, everything is dull and grey. Even his apartment, which to Jerry is clean and charmingly kitschy, is full of stacks of rotting garbage when we see it via another character. And so, when Jerry kills, we can see the logic of what he thinks he’s doing, even as we understand what’s really happening. It’s tricky to pull off this kind of unreliable viewpoint character in film, but director Marjane Satrapi manages it, both with the visuals and the casting. Everyone in the film is charming, but having an affable “everyman” actor like Ryan Reynolds in the lead helps as well.
It’s also important to note that the film entirely avoids the temptation to make Bosco and Mr. Whiskers anything other than pets that Jerry is externalizing his good and bad urges onto. The film does not shy away from the fact that Jerry is very sick and actively avoiding taking the medicine that he knows he needs to take. Those visual cues are important here, because the abrupt visual shift when Jerry does take his meds again are what drive home that the brightness and optimism we’ve associated with Jerry are actually symptoms of his disease. By the time Jerry is able to accept the full consequences of what he’s done, things are so far gone he doesn’t see any options other than death. Given what we eventually learn over the course of the film about Jerry’s childhood, his mother’s own illness and his father’s abuse, there is a bit of an overplaying of the “tragic inevitability” angle here, which is a little upsetting when dealing with a character who is, essentially, ill. But even so, the film finds a way to end on a upbeat note, bringing Jerry’s optimism full circle in at least a small way.