Most of us have played with dolls or action figure at some point, usually as a way to express our childlike affection. Whether it’s self-achievement via Barbie or a power fantasy in GI Joe or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there’s a cathartic thrill to collecting these toys and propping them into various scenarios conjured by the owner’s imagination. I myself was an avid fan of the Lego Bionicle franchise during the 2000’s, partially due to my love of the toy’s visual design and its in-universe lore.
Mark Hogancamp, the protagonist of Welcome to Marwen, uses his dolls for a similar, albeit more tragic manner, conveying the lingering pain of a horrifying tragedy through characters who could heroically fight back. What he feels in the real world, his dolls re-enact in the fictional Belgium town of Marwen, later renamed Marwencol to the public.
Taking inspiration from the 2010 documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen largely recaptures the real-life tragedy that befell Hogancamp in 2000, where five men nearly beat him to death over a drunken confession that he liked to wear women’s shoes. Despite surviving, the attack left him with such severe brain damage that all memories of his past life were permanently fractured. Scrapbook imagery throughout the film hint at remnants of his old life, such as being a cartoon illustrator and having a previous marriage, but the Hogancamp we meet, played by Steve Carell, can’t remember much. His house is littered with notes that indicate the extent of this trauma, reminding him of simple things like taking pills, removing the coffee pot and even where the light switch is located. The more physical therapy exists in Marwen, a miniature WWII-era town where Hogancamp’s alter-ego, the heroically dashing Air Force pilot Captain Hogie, resides. Alongside his squadron, the accurately titled “Women of Marlow,” Hogie fights off waves of Nazis who threaten the town and Mark’s inner psyche.
While this narrative structure makes up Mark’s coping process, the real story involves an escalation of this fictional world as Mark contends with having to testify in court against the men responsible for his condition. This corresponds with the arrival of Nicol (Leslie Mann), a new neighbor whom Mark falls for and incorporates into the Marwen narrative. Eventually the line between both worlds blur together, as Mark’s real-world interactions become new battlegrounds for Hogie to fight on his behalf. As a narrative device, this storytelling approach is both a strength and a weakness. Despite providing a unique visual exploration of trauma, the bombastic nature of Marwen inadvertently renders Mark’s actual life kind of dull.
I can see where Robert Zemeckis was coming from, presumably hoping to replicate his whimsical historical-fantasy direction from Forrest Gump on a more intimate scale. Mark Hogancamp is a scarred man who can’t return to his old life, so he crafts this fantasy setting where any self-doubt or grief is turned into another Nazi in need of shooting. And Carell really sells his performance as a broken man doing whatever will quell his daily PTSD, even if it means pulling Hogie’s war jeep across town like a security pet. You want to see this man heal but, with so much time devoted to his dual lives, very little is given to making the supporting cast compelling. Most of them either fade into the background or receive more self-assertive personalities as dolls, thereby focusing more on how Mark sees these characters rather than who they actually are.
Curiously, even though the five Women of Marlow reflect people close to Hogancamp, we interact with them more through the dolls than in the real world. Some, like his close friend Roberta (Meritt Weaver) and restaurant co-worker Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez) are more central to Mark’s day-to-day experiences. Others, like his Russian caretaker Anna (Game of Throne’s Gwendoline Christie) and rehab therapist Julie (Janelle Monáe) make a single live-action appearance and then appear solely in Marwen world. There’s also an antagonistic Belgian witch named Dejah Thoris (Diane Kruger) whom Mark can’t affiliate with anyone, but her vendetta against both him and Hogie’s various attempts to find love hint at a much darker psychedelic connection. Nevertheless, these characters provide an emotional anchor for Mark to retain his wits when trying to reclaim some sense of normality.
The doll sequences are quite enjoyable, utilizing a CGI style that acknowledges its plastic artificiality while using that uncanniness to great effect. These scenes adopt a pulpy war drama vibe as Hogie and the Women of Marwen enjoy each other’s company while killing Nazi goons like there’s no tomorrow. There are also moments of death and tragedy in this world, usually portrayed as an exaggerated variations of the emotional triggers in Mark’s life. Individual mistakes for him are life and death for Hogie, albeit with performance-capture visuals that neither feel doll-like nor fully human. Hogie, for lack of a better word, is Mark’s inner power fantasy: a manly soldier who professes no shame wearing heels with various non-damsels and fighting back the way Mark wishes he could have fought his assailants that fateful night.
In this respect, Welcome to Marwen makes its thematic conflict work at the cost of divesting interest from anything other than the subtext. That might seem like a rash statement, given how the film is meant to show the world through Mark’s eyes rather than multiple perspectives. But a film world still needs to be engaging if we want the protagonist’s actions to feel impactful, and Marwen’s WWII setting makes its fictional world the source of action-oriented conflict. Every major event that guides Mark’s decisions, therefore, occurs within his psyche rather than with other people, inadvertently leaving the outside world somewhat hollow. It provides a therapeutic recovery process, but not necessarily the most well-rounded screenplay.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Welcome to Marwen provides a decent “feel-good” narrative with a strong performance by Steve Carell and a good use of visual effects. But as a story where one man overcomes trauma by imbuing the personalities of women close to him into kickass dolls, it feels like the fictional personalities overshadow the real ones. Then again, it’s possible that a lot of people will relate to a man who uses fiction to therapeutically regain control over his life.