Marionette suffers a touch from its attempts at philosophy 101, but shines when it embraces its true nature as a nutty horror film which writes its own crazy rules.
A good friend of mine cheekily refers to a “real movie” (in quotes) as a film that has a person on fire. I’m happy to report that Marionette earns the accolade of “real movie” within the first two minutes of screen time. The very first thing we see is a man climbing up to the top tower of an austere building. After speaking to some voices (presumably in his head) we then see him dose himself with gasoline, light himself ablaze, and Marionette is off to the races.
We do learn more about that man and why he was on that roof, but that is not the main focus of the film. Instead, we follow his replacement as a children’s psychiatrist, Marianne (Thekla Reuten). She has just moved to this small Scottish town under undisclosed circumstances. Her friendly and nosy colleagues at the hospital cannot get much information out of her, no matter how hard they try. Though Marianne is no shut in. She goes out to the local pub and even begins to attend a local book club. The impetus, however, to join the club likely had far more to do with swarthy local Kieran (Emun Elliott).
Marianne falls into her work quickly and proves herself to be an insightful and caring doctor. These children are troubled and some have blocked out the world. One child in particular, Manny (Elijah Wolf) catches Marianne’s attention. He speaks seldomly, and spends all of his time doodling dark drawings of accidents and incidents. As Marianne gets closer to Manny, his darker side emerges and it is clear that this child might be dangerous.
In addition to Manny and Kieran, Marianne also is contending with the loss of her husband from her life before now, back in America. She has a lot going on, and co-writer/director Elbert van Strien certainly had his work cut out for himself. Largely, the balance of all of these moving pieces is done with skill. Smartly, we spend most of the film glued on Marianne’s experience through this current chaos and her painful past, which helps the pivots between her crises feel manageable.
Where Marionette stumbles a bit is its shoehorning of pop philosophy into Marianne’s experience with loss and Manny. Her book club feels pasted on top of the plot, and attempts to lay out a framework to understand the strangeness of her universe. But the execution is clunky, and the chosen theories are not helpful to understand the supernatural nature of Manny’s existence. A fundamental misunderstanding over Schrödinger is confusing, a touch pretentious, and not especially insightful. A similarly clunky and intermittent voiceover is equally unnecessary and distracting.
Aside from these missteps, Marionette is fun as hell when it leans into the wild, thrilling mystery it has carved out for itself. While it is chock full of horror tropes (creepy kids drawing creepy drawings, horrific flashbacks, self-immolation, etc.), it never quite falls into being boring or cliché. It keeps up the energy and we are invested in the characters enough to want to see where they go with all this.
Marionette was slated to play at the now-cancelled Cannes Film Festival, and I wish it could have been seen with a good crowd. Thrilling, twisting, “real movies” like this deserve to be seen big, loud, and late at night.