Mental illness has had a tricky history in its portrayal when it comes to film, particularly within the horror genre. Many horror/thriller films that address the subject end up falling back on the old “isn’t mental illness scary” cliché. For those who suffer from mental illness, or know others who do, this type of portrayal can be really disheartening. That’s why when I first watched the unjustly overlooked and highly stylized Ryan Reynolds led psychological thriller/dark comedy The Voices (2015), directed by Marjane Satrapi, I was left both pleasantly surprised, and at the same time emotionally devastated.
The Voices is about Jerry. And Jerry has a problem. He hears voices, primarily those of his cat, Mr. Whiskers, his dog, Bosco, and eventually several severed heads. Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is an all-around really sweet, decent guy who is trying to fit in at his new job, despite a healthy dose of social awkwardness. He’s required to see a court-appointed psychiatrist for something that happened in his past, which we’ll get to later, and take medication for his schizophrenia. Eventually, things get harder and harder to manage and cope with, and Jerry ends up succumbing to the voices in his head (mostly those of his cat) and going down a dark path he can’t come back from.
Now, I know everything I just said there is basically everything I complained about in regard to the portrayal of mental illness in movies. But, what we always have to remember is that it’s not what a movie is about, but how it goes about it. So, what exactly makes it different? Well, I’ll tell you.
From The Inside
The Voices uses an exaggerated depiction of mental illness in order to highlight the inherent struggle many of those with it may face (maybe not to the extent of murder). At its heart, this film is all about empathy. We as the audience follow Jerry step by step, we feel what he feels, and see what he sees. From the outside looking in, he may seem like a monster to some. The genius of The Voices is that it places the audience with the killer, and by doing that we are able to see and feel a journey we normally aren’t given the chance to.
Jerry is never villainized or presented as a monster, despite what Mr. Whiskers may say about him. He’s presented as a victim of both circumstance and a failed mental health system that is in no way giving him the treatment and care he needs.
The primary thing that knocks Jerry off-course with his mental health struggle, is that he becomes inconsistent in taking his medication. When he’s off his medication, his mental illness clouds his worldview and vision (an exaggerated portrayal of how mental illness can change the way we view the world) and he prefers the idyllic version of reality it gives him over the way things really are.
Speaking of the cat, Mr. Whiskers essentially represents the concept of intrusive thoughts. For those who don’t know, intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or feelings that pass through a person’s head. They can be entirely random words and phrases, but can also be disturbing, suggesting a whole host of wicked things. Much of the population have experienced these unwanted thoughts, and for most of us, they go out of our head the moment they pop into it. For others, they can become obsessions that a person has to find ways to cope with. Jerry is in the second camp. For him, his intrusive thoughts have made his head their home.
Throughout The Voices, Mr. Whiskers berates Jerry – telling him he’s worthless, useless, that he’s a freak, and no one will ever love him. Bosco is the opposite. He represents the positive voice for Jerry, saying that he’s good, he matters, and that people love him. Eventually one voice becomes louder than the other and, well, bad things happen.
It hurts to watch, because we know Jerry and have learned to care about him. Reynolds performance and the writing of the character are done so well that despite not wanting him to go down the path he does, we as the audience understand why he does.
More Than The Merc With A Mouth
I realize that I haven’t talked much about Ryan Reynolds performance, which is a mistake, because it is arguably his best. Not only does he play Jerry, but he also voices the animal characters in the film. his performance is equal parts cheery and upbeat, and at the same time broken and tortured – creating a sympathetic character in the vein of Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
When Reynolds snaps and starts yelling or getting ugly, it’s terrifying. This is because he does such a great job at showing the positive side of Jerry that when the not so positive side pops up, it’s genuinely startling. The Voices is proof that Ryan Reynolds is a far more versatile and dynamic actor than he’s given credit for.
Hurt People Hurt People
Now, I said before that the plot of the movie sounds like it could very well be just another horrible portrayal of mental illness depicted in movies. The majority of people living with mental illness don’t go on to become murderers, despite what cinema may tell us. But the journey and struggle of living an unchecked ailment is a story that deserves to be explored. Even in the most extreme, exaggerated ways. Like a man, talking to his dog, and keeping heads in his freezer.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “we hurt the ones we love”, and that’s basically Jerry in a nutshell. The murders we watch him commit in The Voices are a way of showing how mental illness, when gone unchecked or unmanaged, can end up ruining the good things a person has in their life, causing a person to push away the things and people they love, or even in extreme cases, destroy them.
Jerry is finally at a point in his life where things are looking up. He has a stable job, a nice apartment, Anna Kendrick has a crush on him, his life is pretty dang good. But he ends up losing it all, because he allows himself to get lost and his mental illness to take hold.
I’ve said a lot about why I think The Voices is great, and I could say a whole lot more, but I don’t want this to turn into a straight-up book. So, I’m going to end this by talking a little bit about a quote from the movie.
Towards the end of the film, Jerry is in a lot of trouble, and on impulse kidnaps his psychiatrist to get some therapy done fast. After a minor breakdown in front of her she tells him something that I think is very important:
“Being alone in the world is the root of all suffering. But, Jerry, you’re not alone.”
I think that’s something everyone facing an internal struggle against mental illness needs to hear, because it’s true. You are not alone, no matter how much it may feel like it some days, and the fact that a movie so bluntly says that to its audience makes me happier than words can say.