A most unusual film.
In a film that requires a somewhat innocent, but injured performance, believable, yet walks a thin line between fantasy and reality, you get Steve Carell. It used to be that you would cast Robin Williams in these roles (think The Fisher King).
Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, an artist who is savagely assaulted by a group of white supremacists, after he drunkenly confessed, that he enjoys wearing women’s shoes. The beating left him almost dead, but also absent of his artistic talent, memory and sense of confidence. Without his drawing skill, he instead photographs dolls dressed in a World War II setting, the dolls making up the fantasy world that Hogancamp finds comforting and safe. For money, he works a job at restaurant and is on medication for PTSD. The dolls are characters in the village of Marwen, Belgium, where Hogancamp sets up dramas against the Nazis.
In his fantasy dramas, Hogancamp is Captain Hogie, a brave protector of the village. He is aided by five female dolls, each representing a strong female character in his real life. They are “Kill Bill” type heroines, experts on firearms, and equally adapt at cool fashions. When Nicol moves in across the street from Hogancamp, he becomes attracted to her, and she becomes the sixth female dolls.
The film is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who previously gave us the Back to the Future films, Forrest Gump and Castaway. Zemeckis knows how to tell a compelling story and combine cutting edge special effects. Here, he brings the dolls to life, not as humans but as dolls behaving and moving like humans. The dolls speak, move and execute incredible action sequences. Zemeckis weaves the story between real life and the doll sequences, cutting between the two worlds as the line between real life and fantasy blurs, which represents Hogancamp’s blending of his fantasy with the reality in which he must live.
Having the story cut back and forth between Hogancamp’s life, and the fantasy adventures of Marwen is technically marvelous, it shows great cinematic vision and execution, but makes the viewer connect and disconnect with the story and Hogancamp’s life. Impressive but confusing, and disjointed.
The other problem with this film is the main character is a little creepy. There is a lot that’s unusual about Hogancamp. The dolls and fantasy world is the least of it. The women’s shoe wearing (even Capt. Hogie does it) is off-putting. It’s his thing okay, but there’s enough issues with this character and story, the high heels is stacking the deck. After Hogancamp meets Nicol, he isn’t just attracted to her, he proposes to her, and that is very awkward. It may ring true and be compelling to the story, but it reinforced how broken he is.
The person who helps Hogancamp the most is his friend Roberta, who runs the photo and hobby shop where he buys the dolls and miniatures for the Marwen set. Roberta sticks by him and helps to get his art show together. She supports and encourages him, and it’s obvious how much she cares about him, even when he is crushing on Nicol.
The uphill battle for Hogancamp is being able to read his victim statement against his attackers in court. It terrifies him so much that he flees, after experiencing a violent fantasy in the courtroom, seeing his attackers turn into Nazis and shooting in the court. Eventually, he is able to accomplish this and speak in his own voice.
The viewer is led to believe that Hogancamp is still obsessed with Nicol, drawing a heart on a photo of Capt. Hogie and doll Nicol, and he is seen delivering it to her front door. In actuality, he has made a key realization and in the heart it says, “Thank You.” It’s not a romantic message, but a friendship one. At his grand art showing, that Roberta has helped make possible, Hogancamp realizes his real connection is with Roberta, and asks her to join him for something to eat.
Welcome to Marwen offers some creative film-making, and a compelling, but very odd story. You may not like it, but you won’t soon forget it. Another strong performance by Carell, who doesn’t need the crazy, exaggerated Adam Sandler character types, hopefully he has permanently left those behind.