Welcome to Marwen is a failure of many things; except nerve. Sit back; I’m about to relay to you the bizarre unfettered confused insanity that can only come from flying too close to the metaphorical sun. Buckle up folks; this is going to be a weird one.
Robert Zemeckis has adapted the documentary Marwencol into a feature-length film. While rare, this is certainly not untested ground. Werner Herzog adapted his documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly into the feature-length film Rescue Dawn. Zemeckis, himself, while not Herzog, is legendary for following his own obsessions down the rabbit hole.
With such films as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and The Polar Express in his resume, Zemeckis seems perfect for this off-kilter experiment. In many ways Welcome to Marwen may prove to be his most personal film and I don’t know what to make of that.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was beaten within an inch of his life by a group of neo-nazis for drunkenly confessing to them that he wore women’s shoes. The neo-nazis kicked and beat him to the point that he lost all memory of who he was before the incident. After months of physical therapy, Mark was able to slowly return to his life, somewhat. Due to the beating, he has suffered nerve damage, so he is unable to hold his hand steady enough to draw. Once an illustrator, Mark is forced to turn to a new way of expressing himself.
Thus was born the town of Marwen. To cope, Mark has built a small model town, set in WWII Belgium, and placed dolls representing himself and the women in his life, as an art installation/photography project. He has concocted a story to go along with Marwen involving a three-thousand-year-old witch Deja Thoris (voiced by Diana Kruger) who has cursed Mark and the town.
Zemeckis brazenly drops us head first into all of this without any explanation. We are left to piece together all of this for ourselves. At least we would be if Zemeckis and co-writer Caroline Thompson hadn’t spent so much time having characters all but wear neon signs saying “I represent this for Mark!” I’m not exaggerating. Towards the end, Hoagie, Mark as the doll, screams out, “You’re Mark’s addiction!” at another character.
Much of Welcome to Marwen takes place in Marwen itself. Using motion capture, Zemeckis takes us inside Mark’s imaginary world which is, in reality, a giant playset constructed for him to deal with his trauma. The dolls move and look like dolls, with stiff movements and little doll joints. We cut back and forth between Marwen and Mark struggling to navigate his day to day life.
Oh, I almost forgot, part of the witch’s curse on Marwen is that the town is under constant attack by nazis. He is literally working through his trauma by effectively re-living it every day but trying to overcome it at the same time. Again this is all true, this happened. Mark Hogancamp is a real guy.
Except, Welcome to Marwen by virtue of its existence is more than an adaptation of a documentary, it’s a biopic. Biopics are rarely about their subject but about the artists who make them. What we’re left with is a sort of cinematic gumbo of metaphors, motifs, references, and themes.
Carell is more than up to the challenge. He plays Mark with a blend of restraint and showiness. It’s not over the top, but it’s not a masterclass of acting. One has to feel sorry for Carell, after all, he has to play both the actual Mark as well as be a stand-in for Zemeckis’ own issues with drugs and trauma. The result is a strange performance but at no point do we ever feel as if he’s phoning it in.
One day a lady, Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves into the house across the street from Mark. The first thing Mark notices about her is her shoes. It’s hard to tell who Mark is more smitten with, Nicol or her wardrobe choices. The two hit it off instantly, well at least Mark thinks they do.
Sure enough, a doll that resembles Nicol, is named Nicol, and talks like Nicol shows up in Marwen. The other women welcome her with open arms. Women like Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Mark’s caretaker. She has one scene and is never heard from again. But she’s in Marwen, so obviously she must be important to him.
Of course, there’s Roberta (Merritt Wever), who runs the local modeling shop where Mark gets all his dolls. She clearly has a crush on him. But Mark is not ready for women not named Nicol.
Mark’s physical therapist Julie (Janelle Monae) the brash tough-talking non-nonsense ex-army sergeant. We don’t know much about her outside of a flashback Mark has of her telling him “Our pain is like our rocket fuel.” So, she’s there.
Oh and Mark’s favorite actress, Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis). Suzette is a porn star. Mark’s favorite actress is a porn star, played by the director’s wife.
Again, all of this is is a thing that actually happened. Up to and including the part where Mark wakes up screaming in the middle of the night because Deja the Belgian witch has demanded he build a time machine. Deja lives in a cuckoo clock above Mark’s living room so she can keep all of Mark’s movements under her watchful eye.
What follows is, what has to be, one of the most abrupt and bizarre references to a director’s previous work within his current one, that I have ever seen. That Deja’s command for him to build a time machine comes after Mark had an erotic dream about kissing Nicol is on par for Welcome to Marwen.
And no, in case you’re wondering, the weird is only beginning. I have merely outlined the odd. The weird is coming.
The throughline of the movie is the sentencing trial for the neo-Nazis who beat up Mark. Everyone wants Mark to go to the trail so the judge will be compelled to give a harsher sentence. Mark doesn’t want to go. If the nightmares and flashbacks weren’t a good enough reason, there’s an entire art installation in his front lawn that advertises that maybe he’s not ready for this next step in the process.
But what we learn from Welcome to Marwen is that Mark’s friends are idiots. While at the model shop, Roberta excitedly tells Mark a new doll has arrived. She pulls out a brand spanking new SS Officer doll. Mark’s reaction is to have an anxiety attack to which Roberta seems taken completely by surprise. Mark runs away screaming, his toy truck with all his “women” in tow.
Oh, I forgot, Mark walks around town towing a small Army jeep stuffed with his scantily clad dolls. Yeah, it’s a thing. Don’t ask.
A few days later, Nicol comes over, bearing a gift. Mark isn’t home, so she leaves it by his door for him to find. Mark comes home finds the gift, with a card, “Your friend Roberta at the store thought you might like it.” Wouldn’t you know it? It’s the nazi doll that so terrified and traumatized Mark back at the shop. The doll breaks out of the box to attack Mark. He screams, kicks the box and the SS officer lands in Marwen. The nazi escapes from the box to terrorize Marwen, Hoagie, and Mark. I don’t condone talking during a movie. But at this point, I found myself quietly screaming, “Stop trying to give him the damn nazi!”
Understand I haven’t even got to the part where, while in Marwen, Dreja tries to escape with Mark, in the time machine that looks suspiciously like a flying DeLorean only to hover near the bell tower with lightning striking nearby. Welcome to Marwen is the type of film that opens up a dialogue between the art and the audience. Except along the way the conversation breaks down until it’s just the artist babbling to a stunned audience.
Of all the weird things I’ve mentioned, I haven’t even touched on the abusive ex-cop boyfriend of Nicol’s. Or, Mark’s proposal to Nicol. The problem Zemeckis and Thompson have is that within a basic story structure all of this is too much. Carell is the perfect choice to play Mark because he is a sweet-natured presence and easily gains our sympathies. But when he tells Nicol he collects women’s shoes because he “likes to collect the woman’s essence,” we can’t help but think Nicol should be a little worried.
A documentary can be alluded to, or it can be told via narration or the subject himself. It allows us to take the moments at face value without any artificiality. Dramatizing the situation adds an extra layer of sentimentality and obfuscates the moment with sentimentality and inherently subjective and intentionally subjective themes. It’s one thing to hear a man tell his story. It’s another to tell that man’s story. One comes from the person themselves. The other requires the artist putting their hands onto the story and shaping it, thereby making less the subject’s story and more the storyteller’s.
It becomes painfully clear that Zemeckis is inserting himself into Mark’s story. Yes, Mak built a time machine that looks like a cheap knock-off of the DeLorean. That doesn’t mean he had to shoot a scene from his own movie. I haven’t seen Marwencol but the drug addiction, something Zemeckis has struggled with, seems to take up far more mental space than anything else going on; including his affinity for women’s shoes.
C. Kim Miles shoots Welcome to Marwen like an experimental short film. When Mark has flashbacks to the attack Miles bathes the frame in a deep blood red with fog rising up from the bottom. The motion capture is flawless but only adds to the uncanny valley of the actual people. The dolls look and behave more human than almost anybody else in the entire movie, and they’re dealing with a curse of a three-thousand-year-old witch.
I don’t know, maybe that’s the point. To Mark, the dolls are more understanding of him, and that helps him be more honest with them. Except he is open and honest with everyone, except about his pill addiction. But if the film is from Mark’s point of view then why have scenes that Mark would have no way of knowing about? Such as the scene meant to build the tension of the ex-boyfriend watching Mak and Nicole from across the street?
A story that has no resolution but goes through the trouble of formulating a misunderstanding between Nicol’s ex, Kurt (Neil Jackson) and Mark. Kurt believes Mark is a nazi lover, because, well he has nazi dolls littering his front, yard. It’s forced yes but a believable misunderstanding. But it has no other consequence but Nicol to feel bad and buy him that stupid nazi doll to make up for it.
Welcome to Marwen is a deeply strange movie. Its propensity for 180 story turns, and abrupt reveals seem to be bottomless. I haven’t even told you about the milkmaid scene; partially because to describe the erotomania of the scene is futile. It must be seen to be comprehended.
Yet, Zemeckis is a talented director. Honestly the idea to have motion capture animation as the way inside the main character’s psyche and imagination is a ripe and fertile field for the cinema. Taking a step back I have to admit to being a little in awe of the attempt to delve so intimately into the subject’s psyche.
Zemeckis fails because he seems unaware of his own flaws, failings, and similarities with his subject. It becomes almost impossible to tell where Zemeckis ends, and Mark begins. He may be trying to explore his past with addiction but he his incapable of dissecting either the real Mark’s views of women; or his own. Women supposedly give Mark strength, but Zemeckis and Thompson give the actual women very little to do except to pressure Mark, comfort him, or prance about in revealing outfits.
Bad movies are easy to laugh at. Movies like Welcome to Marwen, though, are less laughable and more fascinating. It’s a honking steaming mess with a heaping helping of unintentional misogyny layered throughout. But it’s not just spinning its wheels. You can see the aim even if you can see the form is off.