A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.
Welcome to Marwen is based on a true story about a man named Mark Hogancamp who is horribly beaten after a drunken encounter in a bar with characters portrayed as insensitive and intolerant Nazi-like attackers. Mark’s story was originally made into a documentary called Marwencol depicting him as a once-creative and functioning illustrator. When left for dead, he ends up addicted to anxiety medication while also suffering from physical ailments and PTSD. He additionally lost much of his memory about his life before the attack.
In this latest version, Mark is played poignantly by Steve Carell as a lovable but continually victimized character who is often protected and rescued by the real women in his life. Mark then replicates himself and these women as Barbie-like hero dolls in a make-believe miniature town (Marwen) he has created in his backyard. He photographs the dolls for art exhibits in a running storyline where they strategize their way through dramas surrounding “doll-Mark” as an American soldier who battles Nazis during WWII. However, the dolls come to life for film viewers and act out scenarios from Mark’s imagination. As a result, Welcome to Marwen is riddled with violence—albeit mostly in the alternate doll world where there is gunfire, impalement and torture. There is also mild swearing and nudity, while issues of mental illness and some substance abuse appear in Mark’s real world.
The film jumps in and out of Mark’s imaginary narrative and his reality. His soldier doll, however, is everything he is not—brave, resilient and desired by the women in his life. The Nazis represent everything that attacks Mark—from real people to addictive substances. Thus, this fictional narrative parallels Mark’s own life and is the catalyst to finally battling and overcoming his demons. Real-life Mark continually expresses that he is lonely and unable to connect with others except through his art, for which people revere him. He is, in fact, a highly respected artist, with an upcoming gallery exhibit coinciding with the court date when he has to testify against his attackers. Petrified of both events and feeling hopeless due to his conditions, Mark is determined not to attend either.
The message of the power of healing through art and creativity is a running theme, but there is almost too much going on, even though the visual world of the dolls is captivating and fantastical. A fairytale-like quality pervades his actual world through the production design and oftentimes the soundtrack. Yet, when he falls for the sweet girl next door, who does not reciprocate, he is left to grapple with the fact that reality contains people and circumstances he cannot control. This is in contrast with the imaginary world he created, where all action and dialogue revolve mostly around him. Mark’s attempt to work out his trauma by living in a fantasy world where he controls the narrative helps him come to terms with what is real and what is not—and ultimately achieve lasting healing.
Though viewers may find him innocent and sweet, Mark objectifies female characters (exemplified by his love of pornography and shallow portrayal of women who seem to exist only to serve him in various ways). An obsession with cross-dressing depicts his heroic lead male character constantly sporting women’s high heels alongside his army uniform. The message is clear that people who are considered different are often victimized, and that this is traumatic and unjust. But the drawn-out and sometimes disjointed nature of this film left me feeling there were too many elements to this narrative.
It is, indeed, encouraging to see Mark eventually embrace his reality. The complex nature of the film makes it not especially appropriate for younger children. However, teens may benefit from a conversation around the serious nature of bullying, marginalizing misunderstood people with unique traits, and healing through art. The film retains a somewhat comical and heartwarming tone while dealing with such serious subject matters.
Due to a very mature subject matter with provocative elements, Dove is unable to award Welcome to Marwen a Dove-Approved Seal.