Welcome to Marwen (2018) by Robert Zemeckis
Review by Logan Kenny
Mark sits in a room, with the image in his mind of how everything is supposed to be, the images of true romance flashing over and over in his brain, and believes that reality will follow the rules of fantasy. He sits and asks the woman he loves to marry him, not realising that his relation to her is one simply of image, a body whom he’s projected all his ideas of love and solace onto. She looks at him and doesn’t know what to say, and for a long while, they sit in an awkward semi-silence. The shot lingers for an eternity and we see Mark’s face contort gradually as he realises that life is not what we dream of. When the shot ends, Mark isn’t the same as he was before; the fantasies just don’t feel the same as they used to.
Mark sits in a courtroom, his attackers not far from him. The men who took away his hands’ functioning, who shamed him for the person he was, who beat his brain into mush. He sits in that room and listens to the judge run through all the traumas he’s suffered, the lawyers talking about the failures of his life as a result of the attack. Weak, broken, deformed. The negative thoughts consume, those horrible words and the sight of those who damaged him manifest into crippling memories. We see snippets of the night Mark’s life changed forever. Unable to change anything, he compartmentalizes and falls back into his fantasies, where he is always safe from the dangers of the world. He can’t process what happened to him again; trauma is not something he can stomach dealing with directly. So the world we know falls apart again into the realm of surreality, and Mark runs from Nazis on a mission of solace and protection. In his world, he matters. He is not broken. He can beat his trauma there.
Mark sits in his own home and gets reminded again, over and over, about the things he can only escape for so long. Fantasy can only delay the inevitable for so long, and sooner than later, the anguishes of reality blend through. It feels like he doesn’t even have control in the universe he made, everything builds up into a spiral of hatred and negativity and the horrible feeling like you can’t even be safe in your own mind and the little space you’ve built for yourself and then you scream and scream and scream, and you hit the walls until your fists are bloody and your throat hoarse and everyone around you offers those constructed words of sympathy, the pity coating their voices and pupils. You are not safe anywhere with trauma. There is nowhere you can hide because it will find you; it will manifest in ways you cannot expect and you will be fucked if you keep running. One day you will fall, and you’re back on the floor again, a grown man reduced to the image of a child.
There is something here in Welcome to Marwen, something tangible and profound, that explores trauma and coping with reality through fantasy. The concept of a traumatized man creating a world of art to lose himself in and find some catharsis is something that resonates deeply with me. The real life story of Mark Hogancamp is devastating: a man who, after experiencing a severe physical assault, lost the ability to draw and instead created an art piece using dolls and photos to help process his trauma. The documentary about this, Marwencol, is something I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch. It hits too deeply even just conceptually for me to devote energy to, at least for the near future. This makes it more disappointing that the large majority of Welcome to Marwen fails to capture any of these ideas or emotions, and ends up becoming something totally alien.
The film focuses too much on Mark as an idea rather than as a person, focuses too much on Marwen as a reason to gloss up computer generated imagery than as a refuge from trauma, and spends too much time on crafting gags and miscellaneous bizarro subplots for it to create an intimate and emotional portrait of a man. Mark himself exists as a vessel of suffering and nervous tics; he is a bombastic manchild as conveyed by Zemeckis’ camera. He is a caricature, a series of stereotypes and loud noises, a man whose trauma has transformed him from an artist into an escapist. Steve Carell, in one of the most baffling performances in recent memory, plays him on a register between the most excessive moments of Michael Scott to the saccharine ableist Americana of Forrest Gump. He screams and rolls around as if Mark is a character to be laughed at, and this is conveyed further in multiple gags within reality that position him as the centerpoint of jokes. It comes across as an attempt to be funny when we watch this man suffering from nervous breakdowns and being overwhelmed by reality. This is in deep contrast with how brutally it depicts the traumatic flashbacks, with Mark being rendered incapacitated at the sight of his attackers’ tattoos on the news. It feels like Zemeckis is at war with the script in how to portray Mark. The screenplay, while critically underdeveloped and lacking any real insight into the nature of trauma, seems to be at least trying to empathise with its subject while Zemeckis lingers on and fetishises his emotional despair. Mark’s traumas are dragged out for the sake of exploitation, with the close ups of Carell’s whining screeching face seemingly never ending.
His excessive direction comes through further in every rendering of Mark’s fantasy world, where Zemeckis’ true focus–the film’s garish computer generated effects–come to prominence. Zemeckis is more interested in coating his actors’ faces in hideous doll CGI and referencing his past works in a disorientating cluster of explosions and overpriced imagery than he is interested in reckoning with the tragedy of his protagonist. There are no sequences in which we see Mark deal with his need for this fake world to exist, why he needs to haul around a cart with all his dolls in them everywhere he goes, or that sense of protection he feels from their presence. All we get are little moments of intimacy in the background, soft touches on Carell’s behalf to convey a deep resonance with these objects. Those tiny moments of beauty–of connecting to something that cannot speak or move, that has meaning created by you–are the only moments of the film that hit me in a real place. They’re always wasted for the sake of something else: a horrible Uncanny Valley nightmare sequence, a series of misguided gags, out of nowhere subplots that go unresolved etc, but when they’re there, it’s proof that there’s something here that’s special–something beautiful that could be released into the world.
The only real focus on image and connection to objects in the film’s explicit text are that Mark’s dolls are largely women in his personal life, whom he has altered the backstories of and made them almost subservient to him. He has transformed real women in his life into literal dolls that love him unconditionally. His central romance with his neighbour (played by Leslie Mann) doesn’t exist in the real world, but is framed as beautiful in his artificial one. Connection to something that isn’t real, something that brings you comfort by not forcing you to speak or invest emotional energ–all of that is reduced to the fetishisation of women. The only aspect of the image that gets any depth is that he can no longer view women as people, but as additions to his town in which there is no contrast to this viewpoint. Mark’s views on women don’t grow; he doesn’t change his perceptions or objectifications. By the end, he ends up with a woman regardless of his inability to perceive them as people. But it’s striking to me how Zemeckis in telling a tale about a man who finds comfort in the artificial can only render that as a combination of disgusting effects and textbook misogyny.
Sadly, the only major success Marwen has is–in a way that doesn’t sit right with me in hindsight–the fact that it’s utterly hysterical from start to finish. Zemeckis’ apathy towards Mark as a person carries over in how much of his life is a joke. His addiction and dependency on pain medication is manifested as an evil witch that resurrects Nazis in his world, and his need for the drugs end as soon as he throws this doll away. His breakdowns transform into overacted screams, or maybe manifest in the occasional doll face appearing in the real world to shock the audience. Gwendoline Christie randomly shows up for one scene with a comical Russian accent and disappears for the rest of the movie, only to appear as a mannequin in his world of fantasy. His interactions with other people are reduced to surrealist conversations about sushi or tea with awkward pauses so vast that every inflection becomes something truly hilarious. The Marwen sequences as well are filled with jarring sight gags and awful descents into humour: in particular, a milk maid whose bowl of milk spills like blood after being shot, before having constant puns made over her dead body. The film never once understands the true density of its subject matter and is only valuable as a baffling descent into madness from an inconsistent filmmaker.
And yet, it still has some resonance. As much as I’m resistant to its presentation of trauma, there’s still something there that got me. I laughed way more than I cried and it is definitely far from the film it should have been, but as someone living with trauma as well as being autistic, it still got me in little ways. It’s almost comforting to see something as complex and destroying as trauma be rendered in such a simplistic manner, like it can all be solved with just a little push. It’s often insulting and I would hate to know about what the real man thinks of this, but it’s something unlike anything else. I’m still not sure what to make of it.