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Review: Welcome to Marwen (2018)

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Premise: Based on a true story. Artist Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) recovers from a vicious assault that caused him to lose his memory. Hogancamp copes with post-traumatic stress by creating photographic stories featuring 1:6 scale dolls.
What Works: Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis went through a period of producing exclusively motion capture animation films such as The Polar Express and Beowulf. More recently, Zemeckis returned to live action filmmaking with the adult oriented dramas Flight and Allied. 2018’s Welcome to Marwen bridges those two phases of Zemeckis’ career. This is primarily a drama about a man coping with post-traumatic stress as well as addiction and social insecurity. That recovery is accomplished through an art installation in which Mark Hogancamp tells the story of a World War II pilot stranded in a European village where the local women resist Nazi occupation. Hogancamp builds a miniature town of Marwen in his backyard and creates elaborate narratives that he shares through still photography. The film envisions these stories by using motion capture animation; Steve Carell is cast in dual roles as Mark Hogancamp and his alter ego Hogie and the women in Hogancamp’s life are also represented in the female characters of his art. Welcome to Marwen impresses in the way it uses motion capture technology and the skillful transitions between real life and Hogancamp’s fictional stories. What is especially interesting is the way in which reality and fantasy blend into one another and Hogancamp’s difficulty differentiating them. That makes Welcome to Marwen a vivid and unique portrait of PTSD and the complications of therapy and recovery.

What Doesn’t: Welcome to Marwen is ostensibly about Mark Hogancamp recovering from post-traumatic stress but the story is also about substance abuse. The real Mark Hogancamp did indeed struggle with alcohol but this is downplayed until the climax in which it is suddenly central to the story. The filmmakers don’t deal with the substance abuse very well and so the ending of the film feels disconnected from the rest of the picture. The regard for women in Welcome to Marwen is also troubling.  The dolls are based on women in Hogancamp’s life but we don’t get to know them as people. Many of the real life female characters are barely in the movie and their fantasy avatars are just that. The women of Marwen are tools and playthings. Portraying women as a means for a man’s redemption is nothing new but rarely has it been as obvious as it is here. Hogancamp’s art is intended as a tribute to the women who have helped him but it comes across as fetishization.

Bottom Line: Welcome to Marwen is technically impressive but the film comes up short as a drama. This picture has some impressive pieces but they aren’t assembled coherently.

Episode: #732 (January 6, 2019)