An ardor for avant-garde visual effects is the only through-line for director Robert Zemeckis. For better or dead-eyed, frigid-winded and barren-soiled worse, Zemeckis has always been among America’s most intriguing filmmakers since such profitable, and acclaimed, pop spectacles as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump.
Contact, Flight, The Walk and Cast Away infuse seamless special effects into character studies that sometimes let you see the serrated knife off which any sap might be dripping. Death Becomes Her, Allied and What Lies Beneath are gorgeous genre programmers that couldn’t seem more distinct even as they explore ideas of partner betrayal through common cinematic languages. And yea, though he walked through the uncanny valley of the shadow of death by computer-generated stupidity for The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, at least he made his way back.
It’s hard to really know how Zemeckis will zig or zag. So why not Welcome to Marwen, the most exceedingly strange mainstream film of 2018? Here is a sentimental smushing-together of Small Soldiers and Sucker Punch, with a sidecar of unexpectedly uncomfortable sexuality and a surprisingly honest look at post-traumatic stress disorder and pharmacological addiction.
Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, the film follows Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), a visual artist in New York State who is the victim of a violent assault — beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead by five men because he told them he enjoys wearing women’s shoes. Mark’s memories are gone, only a scrapbook filling in past pains and pleasures. His injuries have blunted his physical skills. On most days, the only thing that seems to prop up Mark are the pills for his pain, of which he regularly ingests far too many.
Mark finds creative inspiration in Marwen — a fictitious Belgian village circa World War II that he has built in dollhouse form where he stages and photographs wartime tableaus. But Marwen has also become Mark’s mental hideaway to cope with his trauma. He imagines himself as Hogie, the brave commanding officer of a sharpshooting sextet of women protecting Marwen from Nazi incursions. Echoing the bon mots of Spider-Man Noir, Hogie’s blustery bellows (“I’ve tiptoed into one triple-A shit farm!”) and romantic confidence belie Mark’s actual meekness.
It’s here that Marwen first drops us, Mark’s dolls coming to motion-capture life via Carell and co-stars Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eisa González, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis (the filmmaker’s wife), Stefanie von Pfetten and Diane Kruger. These frenetic flights of action-adventure fancy are all technically top-flight and appropriately tongue-in-cheek. Only after a thrilling prologue does Marwen counter-punch with the comparative hush and horror of Mark’s real-world melancholy, and Zemeckis’s usual seamless way with visual effects lets these worlds intermingle. The Nazi invasions in Marwen parallel with trauma’s intrusion like a blitzkrieg of panic on Mark’s mental well-being. Meanwhile, the more supernaturally conceived villains of Marwen find a way to act out their own sinister designs on Mark in the real world.
So rarely has Carell resembled a hollowed-out husk of suffering, and although he flirts with Simple Jack-like mugging in a few instances, he nevertheless paints a believable portrait of PTSD and its anxieties. Mark is always more eager to retreat into fiction than confront the reality of an upcoming exhibit or, most stressful, a statement at his attackers’ upcoming sentencing.
Zemeckis co-wrote Marwen alongside longtime Tim Burton collaborator Caroline Thompson, and the film’s finest moments embed her esotericism with Zemeckis’s empathetic leanings. For the longest time, the film’s title was The Women of Marwen. But seeing how shortchanged the film’s entire cast of actresses are — and how uncomfortably Thompson and Zemeckis’s script wrestles with Mark’s sexual attraction to them — it’s easy to see why that was scrapped.
Most of the actresses are given everyday moments of human kindness at which Zemeckis’s work so often excels, just to varying degrees. In the real world, Christie and Monáe get a scene each, as Mark’s respective home-care nurse and physical therapist. You can tell they had Game of Thrones and one of 2018’s best albums on their dockets. As Mark’s colleague at a part-time restaurant gig, González has slightly more screen time.
Only Wever shows any real inner life as a sales associate at Mark’s favorite hobby shop, even then largely reflected through her subtle romantic affections for Mark. In Marwen, her doll’s breasts are often bared and Mark — much like the movie — struggles to explain why. It’s also hard to know whether Zemeckis is trying to flatter his wife, per se, by casting her as Suzette St. Sweet, Mark’s favorite porn actress from Bodacious Backdoor Babes (which we see Mark watching).
If all of this sounds like it’s going to make you squirm into your recliner seat way deeper than you’d have thought from a fantasy doll-world movie, well … welcome to Marwen. Only in Zemeckis’s last film, Allied, did he seem to seem to incorporate passion or carnal attraction as much else other than another piece on the board to move around. Mark’s sexual appetites, and their fickle comings-and-goings, represent one clumsy butt-fumble after another. And that’s not even mentioning Leslie Mann as Nicol, Mark’s new neighbor who takes an interest in Marwen and in whom Mark takes an interest. During their cringingly awkward interactions — in which Nicol seems unbelievably obtuse to how Mark might interpret her attention — it’s easy to wonder: For whom, exactly, did Universal Studios think this was being made?
Marwen is far too aggressive and allegorical for most kids, especially as Nazi dolls blow out the brains of real-world characters in fantasy sequences. However masterful, the animation and its general lack of guile will likely turn off older audiences. There is an unexpected nod to Back to the Future, so … maybe people who have always dreamed of a fourth such film? Thankfully, none of Marwen’s disparities are rooted in some unnecessary “fear of the other” surrounding Mark’s queer identification. Mark’s (and Hogie’s) shoes are just shoes — not a fetish, just a feeling on his feet and in his heart that he likes and that is merely a part of Mark’s life.
And there are some masterful moments near the finish line here — like the framing Zemeckis uses when Nicol delivers a certain bit of news to Mark or the way that a story that could so easily trivialize trauma through cartoonishness instead finds a genuinely gentle and graceful resolution.
Zemeckis often follows what interests him rather than what incentivizes him, which is always commendable in a filmmaker who could have so easily coasted for the last 25 years, and his handmade touch here ultimately makes it easy to shake off the grudges. Zemeckis’s impeccable polish, playful craftsmanship and intertwinement of intimacy and innovation are still in clear view. For the first time in a decade, so are his inconsistencies.