Mark Hogancamp was beaten nearly to death by 5 men outside a bar where he’d casually mentioned enjoying wearing women’s shoes. When he awoke from his coma 9 days later, every memory of his life over the last 38 years was gone. Just gone. His life was changed forever. Formerly a talented artist and illustrator, Mark could no longer wield a pencil well enough to write his own name. Not that he remembered his art anyway; looking at his own stuff was no different than looking at a stranger’s. Imagine how sad, how profoundly sad it would make you to know that you had been capable of such beauty and now you don’t even have the memories.
So that broken man is who Mark is when we first meet him in Welcome to Marwen. He is crippled with PTSD. He lives in fear. He’s over-medicating. Mark (Steve Carell) has an ingenious coping mechanism, though. Unable to do art the way he used to, his innate abilities are leaking out however they can, and now Mark is a photographer, and his subjects are quite unusual. Hogancamp has constructed a village in his backyard, a village called Marwen, which is inhabited by dolls. He sets the dolls up in war-time scenarios, and each one represents someone special to him in real life, namely the women who care for him. Living among Marwen’s women is Captain Hogie, the stand-in for Hogancamp, a tough soldier who lives his life fearlessly. And so he should, because as invariably as he is captured and beaten by the Nazis hiding on the outskirts of town, his lovely ladies come to his rescue, time and time again.
Carell has made it his business to understand the outsider, and Mark is more wounded, more vulnerable than most. But he’s not defeated. He’s fighting back in small ways, in brave ways. He is a complex man and Carell embraces that. I’m just not sure his director does. Robert Zemeckis prefers to stay away from the tricky stuff. He’s made a feel-good movie where perseverance triumphs over adversity. I suppose that’s nice, but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for the story, or true to Hogancamp’s experience. Likewise, Zemeckis seems puzzled about how to treat the women of Marwen. The movie incorporates some truly incredible animated sequences as we see the dolls come to life and act out the scenarios that Hogancamp devises for them. The animation is informed by motion-capture and it looks really, really cool. Voiced by some very talented actresses (Janelle Monae, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie), the dolls are absolute bad-asses. In real life, Hogancamp’s photography of them has resulted in gallery shows around the world. But they’re also comfort items. The dolls are how he deals with his fear, they’re talismans, protectors, therapeutic symbols of safety and security. Zemeckis seems more interested in treating them like sex dolls, which is a creepy impulse, and one that is not reflected in the dialogue, so it’s like the story disagrees between what it shows us and what it tells us, and that discord can be quite distracting.
I think the actors involved in this project strove for an authenticy that perhaps Zemeckis overlooked, or failed to value. Which is too bad, because this movie had real oddball possibilities. It’s still a pretty incredible story, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone from seeing it, because Hogancamp’s story is worth being told (although there is a book and a documentary that may do it better). The way Hogancamp’s experience informs and describes trauma is unique and real and complicated, but I don’t think Zemeckis trusts us to get it, or else he doesn’t get it himself. He gets such a stiffie from all his special effects that he robs the movie of what actually may have made it special. We shouldn’t be dissecting a man’s trauma just to give it the syrupy Hollywood treatment. There was an opportunity to be real, to be honest, to show life’s ugliness and be brave and bold about it, but Zemeckis took the road too frequently traveled. He played it safe, and disappointing, and the movie just can’t live up to the truth.