There’s a classic episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone called “A World Of His Own” where a playwright causes people in his life to disappear by destroying audio recordings wherein he describes them. It turns out that the world he inhabits is one he has created in his own mind, with a splendid little twist at the end, perhaps one of the very first post-credit scenes in entertainment. The underlying idea that the world is the creation of one person’s imagination is fascinating to consider and has been explored time and again in cinema. How would you know if you’re in someone else’s dream sequence or fantasy world?
That’s the premise of the new indie horror thriller Marionette. It revolves around child psychologist Marianne Winter (Thekla Reuten), who, as the film opens, has left the United States after a terrible tragedy and is restarting her life and career at a mental health facility in rural Scotland. She is assigned a number of challenging and withdrawn young patients, including curly-haired but inexplicably furious 10yo Manny (Elijah Wolf). Manny spends most of his time angrily scribbling pictures of death, disaster, and tragedy, the kind of pictures that most parents would find cause to seek out a therapist for their child.
Oddly, Dr. Winter’s predecessor, Dr. McVittie (Peter Mullan), went crazy and is himself now residing in a mental health facility; he clearly lost his mind. What could cause a therapist to go crazy? This nags at Dr. Winter, even as she endlessly confronts her guilt regarding the death of her husband Josh (Sam Hazeldine). At least, when she’s not meeting with her young patients or exploring the nightlife at the local Scottish pub. We learn that she and her beloved husband Josh were in a terrible car crash, though she seems obsessed with the question of whether his death was her fault because she wanted them to take that fateful day trip to a favorite spot? The result of this tragedy, o, is why she has relocated to bleak northern Scotland to begin again.
When Manny swears that his drawings don’t just predict the future but create it, Winter can’t help but be skeptical. If he could really do that, then he’d be akin to a god, and the tow-headed boy is definitely no god in her eyes. But… when freak tragedies occur around town, she becomes increasingly obsessed with Manny, his pictures, his backstory, and whether he might just be telling the truth.
Meanwhile, she meets and becomes enamored of local bookseller Kieran (Emun Elliott). New love helps her find some hope in her troubled life, but then he appears in Manny’s dark, angry scribbled drawings. Not good! And what happened to Dr. McVittie anyway? How did a gun get into her office desk? And why do the neighbors in her flat have to talk endlessly into the night, driving her slowly mad?
Marionette is filmed in a dark, claustrophobic fashion entirely suitable for the surreal nature of the story and the spooky Scottish setting. It’s dark and stormy much of the time, with weather that often reflects Winter’s inner turmoil. This is also a slow-burn horror film where some patience by the viewer will be well-rewarded: the last 30 minutes of the movie peel off the layers of story and meta-story in a most surprising manner. By the end of the film, you’ll be unsure what you just watched, and when considering the additional layer of it being a film that you are watching, another layer of indirection, it’s almost Nolan-esque in its unraveling.
This, however, is the ultimate downfall of Marionette: The more you think about how the story should fit together, the more you realize that it has a lot of rough edges that don’t really make sense upon deeper consideration. But as a moody and rather existential indie horror film by noted Dutch auteur Elbert van Strien, perhaps that doesn’t matter as much as the frisson of anxiety that each unfolding twist offers the attentive viewer. As Winter insists about her delusions of free will, even as she’s starting to fall apart, “I’d rather be a pig or a vegetable because then I wouldn’t care that I was some marionette in a sadist fantasy.” But is she? That’s for you to decide.
If you’re looking for a creepy and quite interesting psychological horror film, I recommend you check out Marionette.