The film is based on the true story of artist Mark Hogancamp, a man who was severely beaten and left for dead outside of a bar in his hometown. "Welcome to Marwen" tells the story of Hogancamp's attempt to find healing through creating art after the beating left him with brain damage and deep emotional scars.
To do this, Hogancamp built a miniature, imaginary Belgian town set in World War II. The town is populated by dolls that represent Hogancamp, his friends and even the men who nearly killed him. Hogancamp created photographic vignettes of situations that were emotionally difficult for him to process on his own, giving him a sense of distance from the events.
If you were like me, the previews for this movie looked fascinating and held a lot of promise for fans of unconventional movies. I was excited to see where the film would take me.
After the screening ended, I sat in the dark theater trying to process what I had just seen. I could not decide if I liked or disliked this movie, and I needed a few days to think about it.
With some time behind me, I am still no closer to a final opinion about this movie. I can't say I liked the film, but I didn't hate it either. Ultimately, I was left feeling something unfamiliar.
I really appreciate movies that challenge my perspective and expectations, and "Welcome to Marwen" is definitely one of those films.
Here are a few things about the film that are informing my opinion right now:
Director Robert Zemeckis takes advantage of some fantastic storytelling tools by choosing to shoot Hogancamp's emotionally difficult scenes over the shoulder of one of Marwen's resident dolls. The doll is named Hoagie, based on Hogancamp's idealized image of himself.
These moments are shot from a third-person perspective, almost like we are watching WWII documentary footage. The dolls in Marwen are computer animations and look just like plastic Barbies or old-school GI Joe action figures.
This convention adds another layer of separation between the viewer and the emotionally difficult experience Hogancamp is going through.
Since the people in Hogancamp's life after he was attacked were so important and pivotal to his recovery, he gave them each a place in his imaginary world.
Zemeckis did a great job of giving the doll and human characters a sense of individuality, often crossing them over seamlessly from the real to the imaginary.
Carell, as Hogancamp, does an OK job but gets into an area of acting where it's hard to separate Carell's real-life personality from his character. At times it feels like we are watching someone named Mark act like Steve Carell.
Trying to nail down the things that didn't work in this movie is more difficult than simply pointing to a few missed opportunities.
The let-down comes from the lack of emotional connection required for us to bond with Carell's character. By the end of the film, I didn't have much more of a connection to Hogancamp than I did when I went in.
Although the things he went through and the ordeals he suffered were heartbreaking, I wasn't able to emotionally connect more or less to Hogancamp than when I was first introduced to him. This has a lot to do with the fact that we are never really made completely aware of what Hogancamp lost to begin with. We learn why he was attacked and how his life was different after the event, but we don't appreciate the full value of what it cost him.
A movie like this is based on the emotional connection between the audience and the lead character, and if that isn't delivered, the story suffers.
Adding to the emotional disconnect of this film is the decision to base it completely on the post-amnesia perspective of Hogancamp.
Normally, this would seem like a bold filmmaking move, but in this case, it leaves too many unanswered questions about the main character's real-world relationships.
We never really know where the line between imaginary and real is drawn. I think that was the intention here, but as an audience, it is good to have a baseline of reality to not feel completely disoriented.
But then again, Hogancamp never really knows if the people in his life like him as much as he likes them. Maybe that imbalance was an attempt by the filmmakers to make the audience experience the same emotional disorientation that the lead character is feeling during the movie.
Walking out of this film, you feel a little emotionally unbalanced, but that may be entirely by design.
This was a difficult review to write because what may seem like a mistake in the way the story was told could actually be a brilliant storytelling mechanism.
I can't say yet if I loved or hated the movie, but what I can say is that it isn't as straightforward as I thought it would be.
As with life, not all experiences and emotions are easy to understand. "Welcome to Marwen" is a difficult movie to categorize emotionally, but it may be exactly what some people need to process difficult events in their lives.
"Welcome to Marwen" is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language.