Welcome to Marwen says it’s based on a true story, and that’s partly true. In the year 2000, after leaving a bar, Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five men, beaten so savagely he was left in a coma for nine days. The assault was so severe it left him brain damaged, erasing most of his memories before the attack and suffering PTSD. Unable to afford proper therapy, Hogancamp ‘escaped’ into the world of Marwencol, a fictional WW2-era Belgian town populated by 1:6 scale model dolls he would pose and photograph as a way to hold onto his fading memories and move on with his life.
His story was first told in Jeff Malmberg’s award-winning 2010 documentary Marwencol, which caught the eye of director Robert Zemeckis and quickly spearheaded for a Hollywood reinvention. In the film Hogancamp is played by a fantastic Steve Carell with sympathy and grace, channeling both the confusion and rage caused by the attack into his expansive doll town of Marwen. Unfortunately, nearly everything else that followed was a complete fabrication – with baffling, unnecessary alterations to the actual story and inappropriately reimagined action-sequences that only serve to destroy the emotional heft built by Carell’s performance.
I can’t imagine what was going through Robert Zemeckis’ mind when he decided to adapt this story this way. At one point he was perhaps the most visionary director in the world, effortlessly blending human drama like Spielberg with the techno-savvy of George Lucas in culture-defining blockbusters like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, and one of my all-time favorites, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. No other director has merged live-action with animation as well as Zemeckis, and the idea of him returning to such a ripe well for imagination had me giddy with anticipation.
This was a long time coming of course. For whatever reason, Zemeckis sat out most of the early 2000’s, focusing instead on poorly-received CGI motion-captured animated duds like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. It’s only been recently his return to more traditional live-action filmmaking showed us glimpses of the old Zemeckis with movies like Flight and The Walk, but Welcome to Marwen proves his fevered dreams of beating the Uncanny Valley of perfect CGI still burns within him.
To be fair, the CGI is pretty great – maybe the best I’ve ever seen. The actors donned full-body suits to capture every movement with scary precision, which translates into scary-realistic animation you might not even know is animated – except for the Barbie-like dolls, of course. None of this is really new as every big-budget movie is mostly animated these days. Still, in the hands of a true auteur like Zemeckis, we’re reminded that special effects can still be special, and in Marwen it’s difficult to tell where reality ends and fiction begins.
I suppose this is as good a metaphor for the film itself; this is the director who brought us Who Framed Roger Rabbit thirty decades ago – making Marwen both a stunning and disappointing achievement on, respectively, technical and storytelling levels.
Curiously, screenwriter Caroline Thompson has a unique history bringing dolls to life in unconventional settings, as seen in Tim Burton’s claymation musicals The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Zemeckis’ longtime composer Alan Silvestri also wrings new emotion from this story as well, delivering a mournful score that deserved a better telling of this story. Every time my logical left-brain attempted to rebel against the lies, Silvestri’s music would bring me back over to my right-brain’s easily manipulated pleasure centers. Funny how music has a way of doing that – and how strange that a crassly made movie about a brain damaged man with a shoe fetish retreating to a fictional world of gun-toting dolls defending him against Nazi invaders would have more memorable music than the Mary Poppins sequel?
Most egregious is the manipulation of Hogancamp’s attack itself, which is distorted beyond the pale in some perverse appeal to the current zeitgeist. The insinuation is that his attackers committed a hate crime (which they certainly did), based on Hogancamp’s professed transvestism. Not content to simply relate facts, the film amps up our disgust by imposing Nazism on his attackers, even giving them the strangest looking swastika tattoos. In reality, there’s no proof any were Neo-Nazis, or had swastika tattoos. The symbolism of these tattoos becomes a driving force of Hogancamp’s surreal Marwencol, so it’s obvious why such a visual cue was needed to drive this point home.
What actually happened was entirely different, at least what could have motivated the beating – apart from alcohol, that is. One attacker even testified they thought Hogancamp himself might have been a Neo-Nazi, was belittling US POWs, and was possibly racist. One of them, the 16-year old identified only as “Black Freddy”, was African-American, a fact the film avoids addressing by excluding him entirely. This is just as well, as even the most talented filmmakers might have struggled to make a group of Neo-Nazis seem more inclusive than possible.
One area Zemeckis’ film gets mostly right is how the real Hogancamp saw women as his protectors, reimagining real women as characters inside Marwen – albeit with heavy artillery and often guns’ ablazing as the most bad-ass representation of feminism you’ve ever seen. By transposing his real attackers faces onto their Nazi counterparts he’s able to visually work through his rage and grief, which manifests itself as action-packed sequences that look great, but hardly seem appropriate given his emotional turmoil.
Sometimes, this view of feminist superiority is manifested through human kindness and patience, as with the disabled war vet (Janelle Monáe) who pushes him through the pain of physical therapy, or his Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie), likely an homage to his real-life (and unseen) wife. Others, it’s clear as day, as when Hogancamp’s plastic doppelganger screams “Women are the saviors of the world!” as he plunges the sharp-edged object of his affection into the jugular of his Nazi tormentor.
At every opportunity we’re meant to see how the kindness of women helped save Hogancamp from not just despair, but from himself. However, even this necessitates distorting reality by gender-swapping real people who actually exist, such as Roberta (Merritt Wever), the truly kind hobby store worker this film credits as helping discover Hogancamp’s photos, which leads to his first public gallery show. In reality it was photographer David Naugle who first spotted Hogancamp shuffling down the road, dragging his toy truck behind him.
Hogancamp’s predilection for women’s footwear is clearly a fetish, which the film downplays by (but not totally) ignoring his love of pornography. Waving away charges its a fetish, he explains that wearing a woman’s shoes “connects me to the essence of dames.” Let me ask those women reading this review: if a man, even a severely damaged man, tells you that wearing a woman’s shoes allows him to connect to their “essence”, would you find that charming or creepy?
None of this appears in the film’s trailer, which rankled some in the LGBTQ community, and for good reason. Marwen isn’t the story of a straight man beaten so badly that he ‘became’ gay or develops a taste for transvestism. Hogancamp considers himself a “heterosexual cross-dresser“, an area of his life that’s been reduced to vague innuendo in this film. His proclivities for women’s shoes is central to his character, and actually predated his attack.
At one point Hogancamp is shown fixated on his kindly new female neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), going so far to propose marriage. Complete fiction, just as the film suggests he named his fictional town after the equally fictional Nicol – the odd spelling of her name becoming the “col” in Marwelcol. In reality, it was always called Marwencol, a combination of his name Mark and a portmanteau of two women he was crushing on, the waitress Wendy (who discovered his body after the attack) and neighbor Colleen, who was married with children at the time – and certainly didn’t have an abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend who resembled a Nazi.
I’m hardly an activist, but the hamfisted way this movie imposes fake heteronormative behavior on their relationship rang false, offensively so. One could easily see the worried studio brass demand Zemeckis include such a scene to remind audiences that, while Hogancamp may like a nice pair of ladies footwear, he still likes the ladies, too!
One fun reality distortion, however, is when Zemeckis reimagines one of Hogancamp’s figurines “time machine”, originally a broken VHS player that “ate” one of his favorite porno tapes, as the Back to the Future DeLorean, complete with the famous dual vapor trails. It’s also telling he also casts his wife Leslie Zemeckis as “Suzette”, Hogancamp’s favorite “actress”.
One should never look to Hollywood for accuracy in their movie-magic, let alone moral guidance. But why distort reality to such an extent where reality and facts are fudged whatever point being attempted becomes lost in the web of lies being spun? Savagely beating a man to where his memories were “kicked out of him” is tragic enough – the narrative doesn’t need help transforming those who attacked him into hyper-fictional versions of the real thing. Or patronizing those real people who helped Hogancamp deal with the aftermath by race and gender-swapping them out of existence.
Welcome to Marwen never reconciles its own lack of awareness on these issues, instead coming off as shameful exploitation of the real Mark Hogancamp and what he went through – and continues to go through. Zemeckis strips the most cinematic-worthy elements from his story, fabricating a completely morbid fairy tale by imposing the worst fears of modern hysteria onto completely unrelated events. Even more disappointing is just how damn great this film is, technically. The true story of Mark Hogancamp deserves better. Scratch that – it already did get a better one: save your money and see Marwencol instead.