Marionette has all the hallmarks of a horror movie: a creepy kid, a gloomy setting, and a central character with some serious baggage. Yet, the film is far more interested in psychological chills and philosophical musings than it is in jump scares or gore, an approach that mostly works in its favor.
Based on co-writer and director Elbert van Strien’s 1993 short film, Marionette is told from the perspective of child psychiatrist Marianne Winter (Thekla Reuten), who has just moved from America to Scotland following the untimely death of her husband (Sam Hazeldine). Despite a desire to make a clean break with her past, Marianne is clearly still grieving, and her grim mood matches the gothic architecture of her new workplace. Nonetheless, Marianne quickly proves herself to be an insightful therapist, even as one of her clients, a 10-year-old boy with a tragic past named Manny (Elijah Wolf), starts to get under her skin.
Manny spends his sessions with Marianne drawing pictures full of disturbing events and incidents, from a car crash to a drowning. And as Marianne works to bring him out of his shell, it becomes clear that Manny believes he can make things happen by drawing them. Soon Marianne starts to believe it too, leading her down an increasingly dark path.
Marionette takes an ambitious approach to its story, and is most successful at conjuring a destabilizing atmosphere that makes Marianne’s unraveling mental state feel especially potent. Less successful is the movie’s insistence on returning to philosophical ramblings, mostly voiced through the members of a book group Marianne joins. The group’s overly serious consideration of issues like Schrodinger’s cat and whether thoughts are self-fulfilling prophecies may be thematically relevant but they’re far too on-the-nose, making them feel tedious and unnecessary. That and Marianne’s periodic melancholy voice-overs muddle the first two-thirds of the movie, taking away from the pleasures of trying to figure out just what’s going on with Manny.
Moreover, the movie’s insistence on deliberately laying out its philosophical underpinnings contributes to some pacing issues, like certain plot points being rushed or glossed over even though the movie feels overly long. Nonetheless, the Hitchcockian vibe and strange mystery are just effective enough to sustain audience interest. And although Wolf isn’t especially memorable as Manny, Reuten does a good job holding the center of the film even as her character succumbs to guilt, alcoholism, and ultimately, paranoia. And Reuten’s backed by an able adult cast of likable actors, including Emun Elliott, Peter Mullan, and Rebecca Front, who fill in and help viewers invest in the world of the film.
A surprising third-act twist subverts expectations and gooses the plot, yet while this will certainly make audiences sit up and take notice, the story ultimately devolves into more philosophical mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t lead to the most effective ending. Overall, however, if you enjoy heady thrillers with a bit more meat on their bones than a typical movie freak out, Marionette is an enjoyable watch.