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  M.   January 26, 2014

by Boyd van Hoeij

The cast of the first English-language film of French-Iranian director Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis“) includes Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver.

Good and evil prefer to sit on the lap rather than the shoulders of the extremely conflicted protagonist of The Voices, the confident, if rather wacky, English-language debut of Paris-based Iranian director and comic-book artist Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).

This thriller-horror-comedy hybrid is among the more eccentric films screening at Sundance this year and stars an excellent Ryan Reynolds as a damaged man-child in a small industrial town in the Midwest who accidentally kills his date for the night (Gemma Arterton) and then asks his pets what he should do — and of course, they talk back, literally. Oscar-nominees Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver co-star in this wild and occasionally hilarious genre crossbreed that seems tailor-made for fantastic film festivals and midnight slots, though a small distributor with large cojones could try and capitalize on the film’s star power and zany premise and aim for a modest commercial release before making a killing on VOD.

After the animated Persepolis, the live-action Chicken with Plums and the feature quickie Gang of the Jotas — which this film most resembles in terms of madcap energy if not artistry — Satrapi here ventures not only into English-language filmmaking, but also directs a screenplay she hasn’t co-written for the first time.

Reynolds is Jerry, a handsome but apparently rather shy and maladroit man who has just started working at a bathtub factory (decked out in industrial grays and retro pinks courtesy of ace production designer Udo Kramer). Trying to fit in, Jerry accepts to be part of the organizing committee of the factory barbeque, and during the preparations falls head over heels for the Brit chick from accounting, Fiona (Arterton, Strawberry Fields from Quantum of Solace). His shrink (Weaver) thinks this is all marvelous but does underline that Jerry needs to take his medication or she’ll have to “tell the authorities.”

Fiona likes Jerry’s attention but not necessarily Jerry himself, and when he proposes a date she stands him up, only to find he comes to her rescue when her car doesn’t start later in the evening. A freak collision with a deer that subsequently and quite literally begs Jerry to put it out of its misery sends Fiona running into the woods in her underwear (she was soaked to the bone), with Jerry in hot pursuit with a knife in hand (that he just used to slit the deer’s throat).

The image of a half-naked girl pursued by a man armed with a knife is a familiar one, but screenwriter Michael R. Perry (Paranormal Activity 2) has done a deft job of taking well-known genre tropes and turning them slightly on their heads, with Satrapi gleefully following suit. By starting the film with Jerry as the protagonist, the audience is on his side, even as his behavior slowly reveals itself to be a little bit more out of control than just talking to his foul-mouthed cat, Mr Whiskers, and his goody-goody dog, Bosco. They both not only talk back (in two very differently accented voices, both by Reynolds) but actually make suggestions about what to do next.

The film’s combination of psychological drama — cue the childhood trauma — with blood-splattered limb-cutting, talking heads in the fridge and talking pets on the couch is a risky one that finally works because Perry and Satrapi find the right tonal mixture for the material, with Jerry’s reality recognizable yet strangely heightened from the start (all the overly joyous pinks in the factory should have been a give-away).

Reynolds continues his rather satisfying run of more complex roles in indie films, after his turns in The Nines and Buried, and impresses with a go-for-broke performance that’s intentionally mannered, yet entirely in synch with, the film’s shifting tones. The women also impress in roles that are less developed, since they are mainly seen from shy Jerry’s point of view.

Camera work and production design are in function of the story and location work in Germany, standing in for Jerry’s version of the Midwest, is superb. Satrapi’s regular editor (and Jotas co-star) Stephane Roche is sharp, delivering the occasional frisson as well as the laughs.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: 1984 Private Defense Contractors, Mandalay Vision, Studio Babelsberg, Vertigo Entertainment
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Screenwriter: Michael R. Perry
Producers: Matthew Rhodes, Adi Shankar, Roy Lee, Spencer Silna
Executive producers: Christoph Fisser, Hennig Molfenter, Elika Portnoy, Charlie Woebcken, Cathy Schulman, Adam Stone, John Powers Middleton, Douglas Saylor Jr.
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Udo Kramer
Music: Olivier Bernet
Costume designer: Bettina Helmi
Editor: Stephane Roche
Sales: Panorama Media
No rating, 102 minutes.