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the-voices-teaser-poster

For the most part, live-action “talking animal” movies are awful. Sure, you get the occasional Babe (1995) or Homeward Bound (1993) in the batch but most films in this particular sub-genre are rather abysmal: pitched at the lowest-common denominator, full of bad CGI, “peanut butter mouth” and dumb humor, most live-action talking animal flicks are only good for torturing doting parents unlucky enough to be caught in their orbit. Even the “good” talking animal films tend to be family-focused or comedies: to the best of my knowledge, the only “serious” talking animal film out there is Baxter (1989), Jérôme Boivin’s disturbing fable about a philosophical, if psychotic, dog who kills indiscriminately while we “hear” his thoughts. One is, indeed, the loneliest number.

To this incredibly exclusive group, let’s add the newest film by Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian auteur behind the superb animated film Persepolis (2007): The Voices (2015) is not only the best talking animal film to come out in decades, it’s also one of the most intriguing, disturbing and colorful films I’ve ever seen. In many ways, The Voices is what you would get if you threw Repulsion (1965) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) into a blender and had Wes Anderson serve up the smoothies. If that sounds like your drink, belly up to the bar for one wild and wooly good time.

Meet Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), our cheerful, sweet and slightly naive protagonist. Jerry works at a bathroom fixtures wholesaler, never has an unkind word for anyone and lives above an abandoned bowling alley with his faithful dog, Bosco, and his aloof cat, Mr. Whiskers. Jerry’s a happy, friendly kind of guy but he’s also go a few problems. He’s lonely, for one, since he’s so painfully shy that he can never get the nerve up to talk to any girls, including Fiona (Gemma Arterton), his office crush. He’s also regularly seeing a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), for some sort of unspecified childhood trauma. And then, of course, there’s the little issue about Bosco and Mr. Whiskers: while many folks talk to their pets, Jerry’s got to be one of the only ones who actually holds back-and-forth conversations with them. That’s right, folks: Jerry’s got himself a couple of talking animals.

Jerry’s talking animals are a little different from most, however. For one thing, they’re not quite benevolent: while Bosco seems like a nice enough, if slightly dopey, kinda guy, Mr. Whiskers is a real sociopath. Snarky, foul-mouthed and a firm advocate of violence as conflict resolution, Mr. Whiskers is like a feline version of Trainspotting’s (1996) psychotic Begbie. The other way in which Jerry’s animals are different from the ones in most talking animal films is…well, it’s because they aren’t actually talking. You see, sweet little Jerry is also completely, totally insane, a character trait that he does a remarkably good job of hiding from the outside world. Driven over the deep-end by a patently terrible childhood involving his equally demented mother and abusive father, Jerry has a tenuous relationship with reality, at best.

Disaster strikes when Jerry finally gets up the nerve to ask out Fiona, only for her to stand him up on their resulting date. The pair end up running into each other after Fiona’s car breaks down and Jerry offers her a lift: a bizarre accident on an isolated, country road leads to Fiona’s shocking death and sends a panicked Jerry straight back to the wise counsel of his pets. Bosco tells Jerry that he needs to do the right thing and report the incident to the police. Mr. Whiskers, however, has a slightly different take on the situation: if Jerry comes clean, his future is going to include an awful lot of non-consensual prison sex…his only recourse, according to the cat, is to dispose of the body.

As Jerry tries to figure out what to do, even more disaster looms over the horizon: Lisa (Anna Kendrick), another of Jerry’s co-workers, is smitten with him and coming dangerously close to figuring out his secret. Will Jerry be able to suppress his darker instincts, take his meds and rejoin the land of the lucid or has Fiona’s death opened up a Pandora’s Box that will go on to consume everyone around them? Regardless of the outcome, you know one thing: Bosco and Mr. Whiskers are always ready with an encouraging word.

When press first came out regarding Satrapi’s film, I was struck by her desire to throw herself headfirst into a horror film: after all, her previous films, Persepolis, Chicken With Plums (2011) and The Gang of the Jotas (2012) were the furthest things possible from genre films. In certain ways, it seemed like Satrapi was interested in making a horror movie strictly for the novelty factor, which is always a dangerous route to take (I’m looking at you, Kevin Smith). When someone “dabbles” in something, there’s always a chance that the results are going to be half-assed or, at the very best, significantly flawed. After watching the results, however, I really only have one thing to say: All hail Marjane Satrapi, one of the boldest, freshest and most ingenious “new” faces in the world of horror.

In every way, The Voices is a revelation. The film looks astounding, for one thing, with a visual flair that’s the equal of Wes Anderson’s most candy-coated moments. Indeed, the film looks so eye-popping, colorful and gorgeous that it’s tempting to just stare at the images as if one were watching a particularly lovely slideshow. All of the colors in the film are unbelievably vibrant and genuinely beautiful: one of the neatest motifs in the film is the repeated use of pink and pastel colors, something which gives the whole demented masterpiece something of the feel of a Herschell Gordon Lewis-directed Easter special. Veteran cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (Alexandre Aja’s resident camera guy, as well as the man behind the lens of Franck Khalfoun’s equally colorful Maniac (2012) remake) paints such a lovely picture with his images that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a film about an insane killer. One of Satrapi’s greatest coups is that she has such respect for the material and the film: the quality, literally, shines through the whole production.

The script, by longtime TV scribe Michael R. Perry, is rock-solid, full of smart twists and turns, as well as some truly great dialogue. One of the greatest joys in The Voices is listening to the way that Bosco and Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds) feint, maneuver and verbally spar with each other throughout the course of the film. They, obviously, represent the proverbial angel and devil on his shoulders but nothing about the film is ever that obvious. Just when it seems as if things are starting to fall into predictable patterns, the film throws us another curve-ball, such as the instantly classic bit where Jerry starts to take his meds and we finally see the true “reality” of his living situation. In a genre that can often have one or the other but doesn’t always have both, The Voices is that rarest of things: a smart, witty, hard-core horror film that also looks and sounds amazing.

And make no bones about it: The Voices rolls its sleeves up and gets dirty with the best of ’em. For a filmmaker with no previous experience in horror, Satrapi displays an uncannily deft touch with the gore elements: while the film never wallows in its bloodshed (certain key scenes are staged in ways that deliberately minimize what we see), it can also be brutal and shocking. More importantly, the film can also be genuinely frightening: when things really go off the rails, in the final act, the tone shifts from playful to outright horrifying in the blink of an eye. If this is Satrapi’s first shot at a horror film, I’ll spend an eternity of birthday wishes on a follow-up: she’s an absolute natural and, in a genre with a depressingly small pool of female voices, an absolute necessity.

One of the things that really puts The Voices over the top (and another testament to Satrapi’s skill behind the camera) is the stellar quality of the acting. The film has a killer cast, no two ways about it: Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith…any and all of these folks have turned in more than their fair share of great performances. A great cast doesn’t always indicate a great film, however: plenty of notable names have been attached to absolute dogs. In this case, however, each member of the ensemble compliments each other perfectly, allowing for a completely immersive experience.

Say what you will about Ryan Reynolds but his performance in Buried (2010) was absolutely masterful: his work in The Voices is even better. Reynolds is an actor who lives or dies by the dichotomy between his boyish good looks and slightly unhinged demeanor, ala Bradley Cooper, and his performance as Jerry takes it all to another level. Alternately sympathetic, likable, pathetic and terrifying, this is the kind of performance that should get people talking: at the very least, I find it impossible to believe that he won’t end up on at least a few “year-end” lists. It’s always a dicey proposition when an actor needs to portray someone who’s mentally unstable: Elijah Wood found the perfect balance in Maniac and Reynolds does the same here.

The rest of the cast is equally great: Anna Kendrick brings enough of an edge to her typically bubbly persona to keep us wondering about her actual mental state, while Jacki Weaver, who was so good as Aunt Gwen in Stoker (2013), makes her psychiatrist the perfect combination of quirky and caring. Arterton, meanwhile, manages to make the potentially clichéd, unlikable character of Fiona duly sympathetic: she’s not a “mean girl” looking down her nose at a social misfit…she a real person who doesn’t appreciate unwanted advances. As with everything else in the film, it’s the kind of characterization we don’t get enough of in horror films.

Ultimately, my praise of Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices can be summed up thusly: it’s a ridiculously self-assured, stylish and unique film that manages to constantly surprise, while finding myriad ways to upend the “psycho killer” sub-genre. While I thought Persepolis was an amazing film, The Voices practically comes with my name on it: it’s like handing a carnivore a slab of prime Kobe beef. Visually stunning, smart, packed with great performances and featuring two of the best animal performances in years (Bosco and Mr. Whiskers deserve their own franchises), The Voices is a truly singular experience.

As a lifelong horror fan who watches more than his fair share of horror films, let me close with my highest possible recommendation: The Voices is an absolute must-see and Marjane Satrapi is one of the most exciting, fascinating new voices in the field. I absolutely loved this film and I’m willing to wager that you will, too. I’m also willing to wager that if you have pets, you might never look at them the same way again.

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