This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of SXSW. "Marwencol" opens at the IFC Center in New York, October 8.
Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol” portrays an accidental artist for whom creativity serves as catharsis, rather than angst. Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New York resident left with brain damage after several men attacked him outside of a bar in 2000, copes by creating his own world. An amnesiac and alcoholic in his previous life, Hogancamp emerges from the attack in a confused but essentially reflective state: Lacking the finances to unravel his trauma through therapy, he plays with dolls instead.
But Hogancamp’s dolls are actually profound abstractions of his suffering: The movie’s title refers to a fantasy town inhabited by World War II-era soldiers as they engage in hyperbolic adventures that seem to reflect Hogancamp’s frustrations with the world – in addition to his need for personalized escapism. By casting versions of people he knew in his previous life as characters in Marwencol, Hogancamp assigns new identities to them. He dreams up action-packed narratives for the town’s inhabitants, elaborating his narratives with nimbly executed photography that depicts his epic diorama in expressive detail.
As a movie, “Marwencol” overcomes a lack of its own narrative thrust by capitalizing on the cinematic nature of Hogancamp’s technique. Throughout the movie, Malmberg breaks from literally exploring Hogancamp’s isolated post-attack life and delves into dramatic retellings of Marwencol’s greatest hits, including violent Nazi run-ins and even time travel. With Hogancamp providing the narration and Jay Clarke’s energetic music guiding the action, Marwencol’s dramatic showdowns (which seem to emerge from Hogancamp’s affinity not only for war movies but the action and sci-fi genres as well) prove that Hogancamp possesses genuine talent in spite of his ulterior motives for using the dolls to work out his psychological issues. As both the screenwriter and cinematographer of these sequences, Hogancamp steadily engulfs us in his fantasyland and portrays a whirlwind of Americana in microcosm. Not that he sees it that way.
However, as his initial motives fade to the background when Hogancamp’s work gains recognition in the media, “Marwencol” enters into a surface-thin dialogue over the gulf between these two intentions. Malmberg appears content to simply accept such dissonance and mainly remain focused on the here and now of his subject, although some expert context would have been helpful. I have to wonder what impact actual therapy would have had on Hogancamp’s output. Is the existence of Marwencol exclusively married to its creator’s mental torment? It’s a chilling idea, one that hangs over the movie even as it maintains an uplifting vibe. Hogancamp’s friends worry that he sometimes believes too much in his Marwencol tales, creating the potential danger that his self-made medicine actually pushes him deeper into the realm of a basket case.
Fortunately, the movie contains no forced metaphors. Hogancamp freely acknowledges the nature of his intentions and tolerates the unexpected recognition. You get the sense that he would be content if the world just left him alone. The movie’s very existence proves that the world will do no such thing. But while he continues to view Marwencol as his personal getaway -- a utopian exit strategy from his damaged reality -- Malmberg succeeds at bringing us into it.