A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process. (from IMDB)
Robert Zemeckis has been a celebrated director for decades. Personally, he won me over at a very young age with the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in the 1980’s. Since then, he’s made numerous dramas and family films, all while trying to push the boundaries of how technology can be used in the filmmaking process. Some have been less than successful (Beowulf), while others have made strides towards the future (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol). And when he’s not pushing technology, he’s focused on more character-driven drama, like with Tom Hanks’ Cast Away and Denzel Washington’s Flight. His latest venture is a dramatic comedy that tackles some very heavy and serious issues while being an effects-driven action movie, is titled Welcome to Marwen. It’s also based on the true story of a man who fell victim to a hate crime and sought healing through the process of making art.
Welcome to Marwen puts Steve Carell in the high heels of Mark Hogancamp, a broken man who was beaten within an inch of his life by a group of men at a bar who thought he was “queer.” Hogancamp proudly collected and often wore womens’ high heel shoes, which led to the brutal attack outside a bar. He had been an accomplished artist and illustrator before the beating, and following the attack, resorted to photographing action figures in a homemade town he built as a means to cope with his recovery. Much of the film is told through Mark’s imagination as he lives a braver life through the actions of the WWII war hero Cap’n Hogie, a doll alter ego of himself. Dolls populate his imagined town of Marwen, with each representing a woman in his life who has supported him and served as a hero to him in some way. Meanwhile, the enemies to Marwen are a group of Nazi soldiers who represent the men who brutally beat him that fateful night outside the bar. Throughout the film, Mark mentally escapes to Marwen–whether intentionally or when it invades his reality–using Hogie as an outlet to do things he wishes he could do in real life. But Mark also seems to have control over Hogie’s destiny, and he gives Hogie some of the victories he really wish he could have in his own life.
Carell’s performance is solid. He excels at the dramatic demands of the role, but he also brings out the necessary humor in many moments–especially when the story shifts to Hogie. I’ve been a fan of Carell since first watching The Office, so it’s easy for me to really sympathize with and feel for his character as Mark. And that may actually be one of the film’s biggest problems. The story aims to stress how villainous the hate crime was–and it most certainly is–however, it also tries to drive home the point, albeit not as in-your-face as most agenda films these days tend to, that you just need to be yourself no matter how bizarre what you do may be. The problem is, in some cases, people are genuinely ill or disturbed. It definitely isn’t normal that Mark would want to wear womens’ shoes. And when he finally gives his reason as to why, he insists it’s so he can feel “close to their essence.” Furthermore, he insists he “loves dames” and when we see examples of his artwork that he made prior to the debilitating attack, some of it is of a big-chested, topless woman who he is a fan of from adult films he likes. Also, the way he envisions women in Marwen is that they’re all sexy, shapely, and somewhat slutty in how they appear. All this to prove: Mark has problems. Some very serious problems. The only characters that point out that he’s got a problem seem to be the villains in the movie, and that doesn’t seem to be a healthy message to send across. Yes, we’re all different, and maybe there are innocent scenarios in which some of Mark’s passions aren’t disturbing, but the accumulation of his interests depicted in the film prove that, no matter how sweet he may seem at times, he probably could use some serious counseling.
That aside, I found myself still able to empathize with Mark at times. Mark is an artist who struggles with coping with trauma (in this case, resulting from a violent act of rejection of an aspect of something odd he enjoys to do), and there are times when he finds himself all alone, battling the voices telling him he’s not worth anything. I think it’s a scenario many sensitive people and broken people can relate to, and my heart went out to him in more than one scene. However, it’s tough to shake his creepy behavior that just screams for this guy to get some help (and he probably shouldn’t be living alone either). In the end, Marwen is a deep film with meaty themes to chew on and talk about, and it’s likely to keep you thinking long after the credits roll.
The content for the film is the kind of edgy material you can expect from Zemeckis. There’s a handful of casual profanity, including some blasphemy, that just really doesn’t feel necessary. Otherwise, the biggest concerns, content-wise, are some frequent flashbacks to the night Mark was beaten badly. We see him lying bloodied on the ground with his face streaming blood, and multiple angles of his attackers kicking him or even stomping his head. It’s pretty intense. The Marwen action scenes feature a lot of violence, with some of it being really over the top with the action figures filling the Nazi soldiers full of bullets or setting them on fire. It’s interesting that Mark uses Hogie to respond in an extremely violent way to the attackers who were violent to him. He also has an extreme, over sexualized vision of the women in his life. If he meets someone he becomes enamored with–like his new, beautiful neighbor Nicol, for example–he tries to find a doll version of her to make her part of Marwen. And most of them are busty, beautiful, somewhat sleazy versions of these women. In one case, a toy woman’s shirt is torn open and we see her shapely bare chest (with no nipple detail). It’s played for laughs, and the real life representation of the woman even calls him out on it, but we see this in at least two different scenes. There is one last scene of violence to note, where a real-life courtroom scene suddenly turns violent when Mark imagines Hogie coming to rescue him and a gun battle breaks out, with some resulting bloody violence (like the judge taking a bullet to the head with blood splattering on the wall behind her. It’s not shown close up, and it’s very quick, but it’s rather shocking).
There’s something about Welcome to Marwen that makes me really wish I could like it and give it a thumbs up–whether it’s because Carell is in the lead or Zemeckis is behind the camera–but there’s so much to unpack here. And if its oddities don’t immediately seem apparent, further thoughts and examination of the film reveal just how flawed the messages this movie seem to be sending are (my rating dropped a full star in the time I had to think about and discuss it after watching it). It’s a visual marvel, yes, and an intriguing viewing, but ultimately, due to its content and creepy lead character, I can’t give this movie a recommendation.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 3/28/19)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
Welcome To Marwen is available on Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital, DVD, and through the usual digital providers. Along with the feature film, the Blu-Ray disc includes the following extras:Deleted Scenes (12:00) – There are 8 deleted scenes, many of which have varying degrees of completed special effects. The first one shows an extended opening encounter where Hogie fights his Nazi attackers back (1 “h*ll”). In the next scene, a Nazi toy is shown broken in two, but he pulls himself back together. He then runs off to rejoin his Nazi comrades–I guess showing that they can’t be killed (1 “S” word is subtitles). In the third scene, after Mark runs away from the convenience store, he later watches Nicol’s jerk of a boyfriend, Kurt, from out his front window. The fourth scene shows Hogie talking to Mark about Nicol (1 “h*ll,” 1 “d*mn”). Next, Mark finds the witch, Deja, talking to a sleeping Hogie and trying to brainwash him (1 “h*ll”). The next scene shows Hogie’s jeep flying with the women toys in his car with him, and then we see it’s Mark holding his car full of the figures out in the wind as he’s riding in a car. The seventh scene shows Mark’s lawyer talking to Mark from his car while Mark is walking alongside it. Finally, Mark goes to Nicol’s house and finds Kurt answering the door in just a towel (implying he slept with Nicol). He then ridicules Mark, calling him a queer, as Mark leaves. Nicol overhears this and throws Kurt out. Overall, the deleted scenes were just little omitted moments that I don’t feel added much to the story, and therefore, were good cuts.
Marwen’s Citizens (3:51) – The actresses of Welcome to Marwen talk about their roles and the film’s story. This one shows some really great making-of material. (1 “h*ll,” 1 “Oh my G-d”)
A Visionary Director (4:54) – Here, the actors talk about Robert Zemeckis as a legend, and what it’s like to work with him. The director himself talks about healing through art (“Whether it’s singing in a church choir or planting a garden.”), which is what he hoped to convey through this film.
Building Marwen (4:03) – For this film, they built the town of Marwen to look like it was made with found objects. They point out some of the little details and then talk about how they made the dolls using 3D printing techniques. All of the dolls’ clothing were handmade, and the actresses give their thoughts on what it was like to see the dolls, considering how much they looked just like them.
Living Dolls (4:02) shows us how they combined motion capture footage with CG animation, and they show us the various layers that make up the scenes. As it turns out, they used the actors’ actual lips and eyes that were filmed and mixed them with the CG faces and bodies to give them such an eerily realistic look.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 4/3/19)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: Hogie’s bomber jacket has the image of a busty woman on it; Hogie puts on a pair of womens’ high heels he finds in a suitcase; Hogie says something like “Some guys tried to have a sausage party with the milk maid but I killed them”; We see some shapely female dolls in lingerie; In Marwen, as a girl tries to escape, the Nazis accidentally rip toy Roberta’s shirt open and we see the topless doll as she runs out. The camera then freezes on this as it switches back to real life. The actual woman who the doll represents in Mark’s life asks why her doll’s shirt is open; Later, we see toy Roberta’s shirt is open again. She covers up her chest, but when she has to raise her hands again, her shirt falls open again, revealing her bare toy chest; Nicol tells Hogie that her brother wears heels and women’s clothing sometimes; Mark claims he wears women’s shoes to be connected and closer to their “essence.” He also talks about how they called him queer when they beat him up; A Nazi is called a pedophile; We see Mark put on an adult film. As it begins, with a man coming over to a provocatively dressed woman, he tells her to “bring those tata’s” to him. Before anything else happens, he suddenly turns into a Nazi, causing Mark to yell and freak out; Mark dreams of Nicol lying on him talking, but he pushes her away; We see many topless sketches in Mark’s sketchbook of women with breasts and their nipples are drawn as well. When Mark tells Nicol he’s a fan of a particular “actress” that he would draw, he tells her she starred in “Backdoor Bodacious Babes”; We see the Nicol and Hogie dolls kiss, and then we see more pictures of them kissing. Mark tells Nicol (in reality) that Hogie said they could get married at midnight so right after midnight they can “do it”; Hogie says he “never met a doll with a more gorgeous set of torpedoes;” During a flashback of Mark getting beaten, the attackers ask if he’s a queer; We see a photo of bare chested female dolls in a pond; In the last shot, we see Mark proudly walking down the street wearing high heels.
Vulgarity/Language: We hear an incomplete “mother–” in a song; 5 “S” words (and 1 “S” word spoken in German), 4 “d*mn,” 6 “h*ll,” 1 incomplete “Son of a–“, 2 “g*dd*mn,” 1 “J-sus,” 1 “J-sus Chr-st,” 1 “d*ck,” 4 “b*stard”, 2 “cr*p,” 2 “Oh my G-d,” 1 “a” word, 1 “*ssh*le,” 1 “For G-d’s sake”
Alcohol/Drugs: We see that Mark is abusing prescription drugs by taking more than he’s supposed to, which appear to be giving him more hallucinations and delusions; Some of the toy characters are seen having drinks in bar. Toy Nicol grabs a bottle, saying she has an idea.
Blood/Gore: We see a little blood on Hogie’s hand after his face has been sliced with a knife and he covers the wound with his hand. We also then see the bloody cut across his toy cheek; We see photos of Mark in a hospital bed with bloody cuts on his face. And some with him all bandaged up; In a real life setting, as Mark shows Nicol Marwen, we see that the Nazis had been torturing Hogie, with him tied up in a church and bloody whip marks on his back; In a flashback of his brutal beating, we see Mark’s bloodied face bathed in red light as he’s hit repeatedly; During the court case, the main Nazi villain turns into a toy suddenly and shoots a man, with a little blood. They then shoot the courtoom judge in the head with blood splattered behind her on the wall (it’s unexpected and kind of shocking); We see some blood on a doll’s dress; Hogie stabs a Nazi in neck with the heel of his shoe and blood squirts out. The Nazi then falls and is impaled on the fence below, with blood; When the Nazi toys are defeated, we see their corpses turn to skeletons
Violence: We see explosions around a WWII plane as Hogie is seen flying. The wing catches on fire and the plane crashes into the trees. We see Hogiie’s shoes on fire, which he removes. Soon, Hogie runs into a group of Nazis who point their guns at him. He kicks one in the crotch, and they slice his face with a knife and then kick and beat him up. A group of girl soldiers show up and shoot up the Germans, who fall over dead; We see photos of Mark in a hospital bed with bloody cuts on his face. And some with him all bandaged up; We see Mark’s notebook that features suicidal drawings and messages where he’s called himself worthless; In Marwen, we see a Nazi in the bell tower. He shoots the milk maid and the soldier girls shoot up the Nazi who falls to his death and breaks in half; We see bullets riddle Mark’s house and the dolls shoot back, but it’s all in his imagination; We see some war explosions on TV as Mark freaks out with some PTSD from when he had been attacked; In Marwen, we see Nazis holding a girl and Hogie holds a gun on them. They whip him in the throat and as the girl tries to escape, they accidentally rip toy Roberta’s shirt open; In a real life setting, as Mark shows Nicol Marwen, we see that the Nazis had been torturing Hogie, with him tied up in a church and bloody whip marks on his back; The girls throw Molotov cocktails at the Nazis which burns them up, and then the girls shoot them dead. Nicol cuts down Hogie from being tied up; A door in the floor door accidentally hits Mark in the head. While dazed, Mark sees himself getting kicked and beaten; During the court case, the main Nazi villain turns into a toy suddenly and shoots a man, with a little blood. They then shoot the courtoom judge in the head with blood splattered behind her on the wall. There’s then lots of shooting with people running and screaming. Hogie rushes Mark out of court and throws a grenade into the court room. It then all turns back to reality with none of that having actually happened; We see Mark put on an adult film. Before anything happens, the man on the screen suddenly turns into a Nazi, causing Mark to yell and freak out; We see more of Mark’s attack and we see him getting hit in the back of the head with a bottle and then getting kicked in the head and face; There’s a climactic battle in Marwen. A Nazi holds a gun on Hogie. He shoots at him and chases him. Hogie kicks the Nazi and they fight in the bell tower. He stabs the Nazi in neck with the heel of his shoe and blood squirts out. The Nazi then falls and is impaled on the fence below, with blood. The soldier girls shoot at the Nazis. When they’re defeated, we see their corpses turn to skeletons; We see photos of the Nazi toys hanging upside down.