Movie Review – Welcome to Marwen
Mark Hogancamp is an artist. He used to be in the Navy and was a showroom designer and carpenter. In the film, it also says that he was an illustrator for comics and elsewhere. In April 2000, he was attacked outside a bar in Kingston, New York. He was nearly beaten to death. He was put into a coma for nine days and had to be hospitalized for 40 days. He ended up having brain damage, including memory loss. As a form of therapy, he created a miniature town in his backyard, populated with dolls. He would set up or pose the dolls in clothes and a setting of a town in Belgium during World War II. He called the town “Marwencol,” which was a combination of his first name and the names Wendy and Colleen. Hogancamp would take pictures of Marwencol, which were later published and shown in an art gallery in 2005. A documentary about Hogancamp was released in 2010. A book called Welcome to Marwencol was published in 2015.
Directed by Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump and Back to the Future), this movie adapts Hogancamp’s story, but it goes a step forward and it does animation of Hogancamp’s dolls and the stories of his town. Since directing Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Zemeckis has utilized animation in his films. Since directing The Polar Express (2004), Zemeckis has specifically utilized the motion-capture technique of animation. However, his films using that technique have been criticized for being in the uncanny valley.
The uncanny valley is when a depiction of a human is close but not quite close that it feels off. It occurs mostly in video games of recent, but Zemeckis has brought it to the big screen. In this case, it probably works in the filmmaker’s favor because it mostly stands to mimic Hogancamp’s art. Uncanny valley occurs when the depiction wants to convince the audience that it’s human when it’s not. However, the depiction here of Hogancamp’s town isn’t meant to convince it’s real. It’s always meant to be dolls in the frame. Yet, a dilemma of the movie is the blurring of the line.
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher and Little Miss Sunshine) stars as Mark Hogancamp, whom we meet after his attack as he’s lost in the fantasy of his town. He imagines a scenario where a doll that looks like him is in charge of the town and he’s tasked with protecting the town from German Nazi soldiers. Helping him to protect the town are a group of women. Mark imagines that the Germans attack him or the town and he and the women have to defend themselves in over the top shootouts.
All of the women in his town are named after women he knows in his personal life. Each time he meets someone, he’ll find a doll for them and add them to his town. Obviously, his scenarios are metaphors for things that happen in his life that he uses to help him process. The German soldiers represent the men who attacked him in 2000. As he processes that attack through these scenarios, he’s getting ready for an art show of his work. At the same time, his lawyer pressures him to appear in court as his attackers get ready to be sentenced. Mark’s lawyer thinks his attackers will be sentenced harsher if Mark appears because he can better sell it as a hate crime.
Leslie Mann (This is 40 and The Other Woman) co-stars as Nicol, the new neighbor who moves in next to Mark. She’s a veterinarian who loves teapots. She moved in to get away or out of a bad relationship. She befriends Mark upon seeing his town in his yard. She admires his work and appreciates what it is and what it means. She’s also dealing with her own trauma, the loss of her son, but the movie doesn’t delve into it too much. Invariably, Mark falls in love with Nicol. He then invents a scenario in his town where his proxy has a romance with Nicol’s proxy in the town, leading to a marriage proposal. The question is if this love is real or just in his head.
What we see is that Mark suffers from PTSD. He can be triggered at any time and he starts to see and hear his scenarios come to life. Given that his scenarios involve WWII, there is gunfire and loud noises that also come to life and spook him to his core. They then take him back to reliving his 2000 attack, which causes him anxiety and depression.
The film is about how Mark has to cope with that anxiety and depression, as well as the PTSD. It’s also about Mark finding the strength or courage to confront the source of his troubles. As the fantasy of his scenarios bleed into his reality and he starts confusing the two, it’s also about Mark confronting or distinguishing the fantasy from the reality. It’s also about Mark having to discern what’s reality and what isn’t and then having to embrace that reality and appreciating what’s there and not what’s just in his mind.
In the documentary, all the dolls are mainly Barbie dolls repurposed and redressed in WWII clothes. Most of which have generic Barbie looks. Most were just sexual objects. However, in this film, the dolls seem almost tailor-made to represent the women they’re meant to represent. Merritt Wever (Godless and Nurse Jackie) plays Roberta, the woman who runs a hobby shop or toy store. Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures and Moonlight) plays Julie, a friend at rehab. Both have dolls in Mark’s town and the dolls are exact replicas of what the women look like.
The screenplay by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands and Corpse Bride) gives the dolls funny things to say. The doll’s interactions are amusing. Even the deaths of the dolls are rendered in a great, comical fashion. There is even some elements thrown into those fantasy scenes that are ripped from Zemeckis’ own filmography that’s somewhat fun too.
There aren’t many films about victims of hate crimes, particularly a hate crime against a person who identifies as queer or as LGBT. There also aren’t too many of those films that deal with the adjudication of those kinds of crimes. The movie isn’t as good as something as The Accused (1988), but this movie isn’t really a legal drama any way. The movie is more about trying to understand this man and his trauma.
Unfortunately, this film feels like a watered-down version of queer hate crimes or a Hollywood version of such victims to be more palatable to the masses. Not accounting for religion like Judaism and Islam, the largest group that experiences hate crimes is LGBT people. Mark doesn’t have same-sex attractions or is transgendered, but Mark is a bit of a cross-dresser. Cross-dressing and gender non-conforming expressions are part of the LGBT community, but Mark reportedly only collects women’s shoes and occasionally wears them. Yet, he wasn’t wearing them during his 2000 attack and it’s not a part of his daily life.
I don’t want to diminish his attack or how wrong it is, but of all the movies to make about these kinds of hate crimes, to do this one about a guy who doesn’t have this aspect as a part of his daily life is unfortunate. Like most mainstream Hollywood films like Star Trek Beyond (2016) or Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), the major studios like Universal Pictures nod to the LGBT community but won’t actually do more with it.
I would also argue that cross-dressing has been a Hollywood trope for decades and has been the subject for derision in Hollywood films. It was seriously handled in Tootsie (1982), but most often, it’s a punchline as in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) or a lot of the Tyler Perry films. However, depicting two gay men in love and being physically affectionate is something Hollywood films in wide release don’t do. Having an openly gay man as the center of such a Hollywood film dealing with a hate crime is extremely rare.
Earlier this year, Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon was a huge step-forward in that regard. It still fell short in a lot of ways. This one falls short in those same ways too. Yes, there are shots of Mark or his proxy wearing women’s shoes, but as the proxy it’s still nothing but a punchline. The one shot of Mark himself in women’s shoes is at the end like in Love, Simon where the queer expression is held till the end when it doesn’t matter. A better movie in this regard is an independent film called Hate Crime by Tommy Stovall.
This movie though also doesn’t examine some other issues of Mark. Mark falls in love with Nicol and pursues her. He does so claiming to be lonely. Meanwhile, Roberta has been asking him out and his initial rejections of her aren’t ever examined. Why did he reject Roberta over Nicol? The fact that the movie doesn’t address that question goes to the heart of what’s wrong here.
Rated PG-13 for fantasy sequence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.