WELCOME TO MARWEN is a Lesson in Cinematic Empathy

A wonder-filled depiction of trauma

It’s hard to think of too many other movies (with the possible exception of Venom) that were subjected to as much pre-release hate as Welcome to Marwen. With the unveiling of each subsequent trailer and TV spot, the level of disdain and immediate rejection proved that the movie was never going to get a fair chance, with most naysayers complaining about the subject matter and the sympathy it was so clearly trying to elicit from modern audiences. The decrying speaks volumes about the cynicism flowing throughout most of the critical media today, who may feel the need to reserve letting their emotional guard down for something a little more fashionable or arty. Granted, some of the apprehension towards Welcome to Marwen is understandable to a point since it’s a film which (thanks to its tone) is definitely hard to classify in an age when the act of classification seems to be higher than ever. The film will almost certainly not be for everyone; in fact if I’m being honest, it’ll be for only a select few. But depending on who you are and the dark places life has had you journey to, Welcome to Marwen is a movie with the ability to speak to the soul.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Welcome to Marwen tells the story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), a once-successful illustrator who, after experiencing a brutal attack, is trying to rebuild his life and finds an outlet in the construction of a miniature fictional town set in Belgium during WWII, which he has dubbed Marwen. Populating Marwen are a collection of miniature dolls Mark has fashioned to resemble himself and the women in his life, including caregiver Anna (Gwendoline Christie), barmaid Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez), hobby store employee Roberta (Merritt Weaver), physical therapist Julie (Janelle Monae), and new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann). As the sentencing date of his assailants approaches, Mark struggles to find the courage to break away from the reality he has created within Marwen and face the outside world once again.

Any film that dares to be a hybrid of genres is automatically facing skepticism from critics and audiences, particularly in the case of the latter, who almost always like to know exactly the kind of movie they’re walking into. Yet because of the uniqueness of its story, Welcome to Marwen couldn’t exist were it not for the blending of tones. The humorous banter within most of the scenes shared by Carell and Mann is offset by the tragedy of the central character’s fractured nature. Added elements of the neo-nazi gang who beat Mark within an inch of his life, the playfulness of Mark enjoying Marwen when no one else is around, and the oftentimes brutal violence he imagines taking place amongst the dolls within that world, ensure the movie is not what anyone is expecting it to be. The duality of Welcome to Marwen may alienate some; in fact I’ve got no doubt it will. But others may see it as giving the film a life and a feel that’s all its own. The action-driven fantasy within the scenes in Marwen sees Mark’s alternate persona, an army commander nicknamed “Hoagie,” feel instantly diverting, with the hero and his fearless female warrior comrades (quite the feminist stance considering the era being depicted) repeatedly taking on a group of Nazis with typically harsh and brutal results. Those sequences are carefully woven with the soft gentleness of the real world where Roberta and others try to connect with Mark who continues to keep everyone at arm’s length. Nicol is the lone exception; a woman with a dark past of her own, who immediately senses Mark’s wounded soul and curiously decides to venture into his space, giving him his first glimpse at a chance at life outside of Marwen. The shifting back and forth between the two polar opposite worlds may seem like too much of a rollercoaster, but proves to be a clever way of understanding both realities Mark himself has chosen to exist in.

The movie’s frenetic nature may be one of its biggest downfalls in many people’s eyes, but it’s hard to deny that such a style doesn’t speak to the absolute core truth and honesty of Mark’s ordeal. Naturally some facts have been altered in the transferring of Mark’s story from documentary to narrative, but very little remains that could be called conventional in terms of the way Hollywood cleans up true life stories. The biggest of these of elements is Mark’s penchant for collecting and wearing women’s shoes, with a collection of pairs in the hundreds. We don’t know if Mark is gay (we presume he isn’t based on his attraction to Nicol), nor do we know if he is a transvestite. But then again, because of his accident, neither does he. It’s aspects of these where Welcome to Marwen refuses to play it safe, risking reactions of befuddlement and/or condemnation for the sake of honesty. Zemeckis and company only care about the authenticity of Mark’s journey and therefore are not afraid to explore this specific example of trauma in it’s intricate nature. Welcome to Marwen delves deep into the world someone fraught with trauma builds for themselves; the place where they feel safe, alive, and in control. The movie takes the time to show how vital a second world is to someone suffering from such an ordeal and their need to cling to it as their only means of healing. As the movie progresses, we tend to spend more time in Marwen than we do in the real world (eventually becoming surprised at how entertaining the fantasy sequences remain). This isn’t necessarily a conscious choice on behalf of Zemeckis as much as it is a way of showing just how high the stakes have been raised for Mark. As the sentencing hearing approaches, Mark would rather disappear into Marwen than have to face the harshness of the world outside it.

As someone who has always felt that Carell was either trying too hard (Battle of the Sexes) or not trying at all (Get Smart), it’s so incredibly refreshing to finally see the actor thrive in a role which utilizes both his gift for humor and his dramatic skills. The actor’s empathy towards the real man he’s playing is more than clear as he treats his character’s experience with the right kind of sympathy and dignity, to where the fear and the pain of Mark’s journey are as clear as the small bit of light that remains within him. The women of the film don’t really get to enjoy as expansive of roles thanks to the peripheral nature of their characters. The lone exceptions are the always-ethereal Mann and the lovely Weaver, whose respective tender feelings towards Mark speak to the beauty of everyday humanity and love.

As expected, many critics who have seen Welcome to Marwen have not shied away from proclaiming it one of the year’s worst and a travesty for all associated with it. At the same time, many of those same critics were quick to praise Marwencol, the documentary which inspired this film. It wouldn’t be too far-reaching to suggest that those who lavished praise on the documentary did so almost because it would have been horrible to criticize the documentation of such a tragic story. Yet it proves easy to laugh at a big Hollywood movie with a high-profile star and director attached, despite the fact that the same story (and the same trauma) is being depicted. It also isn’t much of a stretch to view detractors of the film being similar to Mark’s assailants. Only instead of attacking Mark for being different, it’s the movie that’s being attacked for being daring to stray from conventional storytelling norms by trying to tell a tragic story in a beautiful light. Make no mistake, Welcome to Marwen is an earnest movie about human damage whose virtues lie not in its glossy look, blended tones, or skillfully executed effects, but rather in the way in which it shows how anyone can be damaged. More than that, it is a movie which shows that such damage isn’t so easily defined, understood, or experienced in any one linear form. Welcome to Marwen knows this, and certainly some who will see it (especially those who have lived it), do as well.

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