Premise: A disturbed man with a good heart is tormented by his talking pets, who convince him to do things he'd rather not do.
About: This is the number 3 script on the 2009 Black List. For those of you scratching your heads and saying the name "Michael R. Perry," sounds familiar, that's because it is. We reviewed one of his older scripts here called, "Twenty Billion," which he wrote with Steven Gaghan and Michael Tolkin. Perry's been around for awhile, writing and producing for TV shows like Millennium, The Practice, NYPD Blue, and House M.D. Not surprising at all, since this script shows a command of the craft I haven't seen in a long time.
Writer: Michael R. Perry
Details: 112 pages (January 28, 2009 draft)
The Voices is a gooey and glorious dip into darkness. It bites when you expect it to bark. It bleeds when you expect it to heal. It's one of those rare experiences where, no matter how many millions of words you're read in your lifetime, you have no idea what to expect next. The characters are always odd, saying and doing things that don't quite feel like things normal people say and do. Yet in this universe, it all makes perfect sense. Part Dr. Dolittle, part American Psycho (try using that mash-up as a pitch), I can say with complete confidence that I've never read a script like The Voices before, nor do I ever expect to again.
Jerry Hickfang is one of those guys who looks normal at first, but ya get the feeling he has a few loose screws up in the attic. He's just started working at a massive bathroom fixture factory, sealing up shower molds so people like you and I can stay clean during our day job. Jerry is nice and polite, if a little too eager to bond with his new co-workers.
If you had any doubt that Jerry was strange, that goes away once he gets home (home is an abandoned Bowling Alley attic by the way). It's there that we meet Jerry's two pets, Mr. Whiskers the cat and Bosco the dog. Mr. Whiskers gives it to you straight, condemning your life choices at every opportunity and never leaving any doubt that the world is a horrible place, and that you're likely doing horrible things in it. Bosco is much nicer, constantly supportive of your choices and goals. If Jerry has a nice day, Bosco's the one to congratulate him. Oh, did I mention I know this because Jerry's animals talk to him? Yes, ever since Jerry has been a child, dogs, cats, socks, and random inanimate objects talk to him. Jerry hears voices.
But hey, what's a little harmless conversation about last week's The Bachelor with your poodle if no one's getting hurt, right? Things seem to be going just splendid anyway. Jerry's been invited to the company picnic, where he befriends Katie from accounting, a beautiful invigorating spirit who I couldn't help but think should be played by that new secretary from The Office. Katie likes Jerry, but not nearly as much as Jerry likes her. When Katie recruits Jerry to help teach the Macarena to everyone, he interprets it as a sign of true love (as crazy people usually do). This, unfortunately, is seriously bad news for Katie. Because when crazy people meet girls in movies, they tend to end up killing them later.
So late one night, when Jerry's cruising around after the carnival, he runs into Katie, whose car has broken down. Naturally, he takes this as a sign of fate. Katie isn't nearly as convinced, but she's game for some fun and the two go on an impromptu date. But when a 5 point buck smashes through their window, the mood goes south pronto, and a freaked out Katie darts into the woods. Jerry races after her, and in a clumsy scuffle to settle her down, he accidentally stabs and kills her. Jerry runs home, where he seeks advice from his talking pets. Bosco thinks he should go to the police right away. And naturally, Mr. Whiskers believes that choice is the stupidest fucking idea on earth. Jerry decides to keep his trap shut.
Back at work, people become suspicious about Katie's absence, but no one knows the two went out together, so as long as they don't find the body, Jerry's fine. Mr. Whiskers picks up on this and encourages Jerry to dispose of the body, so Jerry drives out to the woods and brings it back. He then chops it into pieces for disposal, and throws the severed head in the fridge. This is when things got kinda freaky. Because you hear about this sick shit on the news, yet here, we're getting an ongoing play by play of exactly how the killer is thinking while he's doing it. And because there's a certain amount of sympathy we have towards Jerry, and because we know that Jerry didn't mean to do it, everything he does makes sense on some level.
The problem for Jerry is that "the voices" stop peddling their candy-coated rhetoric and start getting nasty. If he's already killed once, they argue, why not kill more? Jerry doesn't want to hurt anyone, but his pets are his only true friends, and he takes their advice dearly. So Jerry asks a second girl out from work, and we watch hopelessly as this new relationship evolves, knowing full well there's only one way it can end, despite Jerry's best intentions. The fallout from that relationship leads to a host of other complications that snowball out of control, until Jerry's forced to deal with just how fucked up in the head he is – starting with the issue of his cat and his dog carrying on daily conversations with him.
The biggest achievement of The Voices is the aforementioned sympathy you gain for a character who's, essentially, a serial killer. He continues to kill innocent people, yet his rationalization behind each kill makes sense in the context of his situation. It makes you wonder, "Is this the kind of stuff that goes on in a real serial killer's head? Do they too hear these voices?" Since we, as human beings, survive by rationalizing our most devious behaviors, is it okay to sympathize with someone for doing something horrible if that person truly believes they're not being horrible? Jerry never wants to kill anyone. Yet people seem to get killed around Jerry. I guess the point I'm trying to make is, "Why the hell am I rooting for a serial killer???"
Part of it is Perry's mastery of tone. He molds it and shapes it just like Jerry molds those shower stalls. Because the characters and situations here exist in a slightly sillier/heightened universe, Perry is allowed to get away with more. This is a universe where the Macarena is the movie's soundtrack, where characters live in bowling alleys, and of course, where dogs, cats, and severed heads speak. This slightly offbeat world helps cushion the impact of some of the more outrageously violent moments, allowing us to enjoy them, instead of the more natural response of being sickened.
It's hard to find much wrong with The Voices. I guess the deaths were a little repetitive (all the victims seemed to run into the forest – although I guess that could be used for comedic effect). The theme of God comes on strong in the final act, yet its presence is pretty scattershot in the first two. And on a more real-world note, I felt sorry for these poor pets Jerry was obviously neglecting (the healthy happy talking pets he sees are not even close to what the real pets look like). But this was such a fresh unique read, I bandied about whether I should add it to my Top 25. For now I'm going to keep it off. But I might throw it up there in a few weeks, after I've had time to let it sink in.
If this sounds like something you'd in any way be interested in, drop what you're doing and read it now.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: I often talk about "What's driving your story?" What is the main thrust at any given moment that keeps your reader turning the pages? Most of the time, it's a character with a strong goal (i.e. Find the Arc, save your daughter, kill the terrorists) or a mystery (The Ring, Sixth Sense, The Hangover) or maybe your character is being chased (i.e. Enemy Of The State, The Bourne movies, Star Wars). But there are also lesser known devices you can use to drive our interest. And one of them is used here. The "train wreck" approach. Basically, it's providing a scenario we know is going to end badly, so we have to keep watching to see how it ends. Here, we know Jerry is crazy. We know all of this is going to blow up in his face. So we keep watching to find out when and how it happens. It's no different than the sick anticipation we have creeping up the highway as we wait to see the big car wreck. We have to look. It's not as popular of a device, but it can definitely be used effectively in the right hands.