While this certainly doesn't preclude the possibility of a worthy film, the practice of working backward from a pre-formed conclusion does tend to lead to a type of narrative safeness. The fascinating, piercing Marwencol, however, feels as though it could jump the tracks at any moment. The story of a truly outside artist, this is both compassionate and unblinking, the rare documentary that feels like it's discovering its subject at the same rate as the viewer.
Shot in a mobile, unhurried style, Jeff Malmberg's film follows Mark Hogancamp, a former alcoholic ne'er-do-well whose life was violently altered following an altercation outside a bar in 2000.
Suffering from amnesia as well as other brain damage, he devises his own form of therapy by constructing a miniature town in his upstate New York backyard, populated by World War II-era action figures. While manipulating the figures and changing the narrative on a constant basis, Hogancamp begins to reconstruct his own life, with unexpected, mercurial results.
Malmberg follows his subject into some dark places—particularly when the artist begins to incorporate women from past relationships into the more violent areas of his tableaux—but his film never loses its sense of wonder and discovery of its star, an alternately tortured and blissful character whose grasp on reality remains a mystery to even himself. This uncertainty principle makes this remarkable film stand as a gotta-see example of micro/macro storytelling. The closer it zooms into the specifics, the more the possibilities open up.