October 20th, 2005
Madman Lars Von Trier reaches back into his bag of goodies and comes up with “Dear Wendy.” A valentine to American gun control contradictions and the conviction of youth, “Wendy” is a corker of a ride, as long as you don’t take it very seriously.
In the small southeastern U.S. mining town of Estherslope, teenager Dick (a magnificent Jamie Bell, "Billy Elliot") has just come into contact with his first firearm, a small pistol he lovingly names "Wendy." Considering himself an armed pacifist, Dick loves the newfound confidence that Wendy brings him. Dick soon persuades other disenfranchised youth (including Chris Owen, Mark Webber, Allison Pill, and Michael Angarano) to join his gang/cult, called "The Dandies," and they build a temple where they can study and practice shooting their firearms, and discuss their philosophy that the only way to appreciate and comprehend a gun is to never use it for violent purposes.
Wow. That Lars Von Trier is one wacky guy.
"Dear Wendy" is Von Trier's latest indictment of America; a land, mind you, the filmmaker has never visited. Von Trier is infatuated with the capacity of the U.S. to blindly follow the leader, and to willingly fetishize objects of destruction. "Dear Wendy" takes on the gun and religious culture, but takes the argument to Von Trier's favorite land: the extreme.
Perhaps Von Trier wasn't up to the task of directing, so he passed over the reigns to his Dogme 95 partner, Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg, who made a strong impression with his dazzling 1998 film, "The Celebration," feels like the right man for the job, as only a close friend could rationally take on Von Trier's screenplay and form some level of cohesion out of his flypaper style of writing.
"Wendy" exists only in a sparse, self-contained world, similar to the minimalist trappings in Von Trier's "Dogville" and "Manderlay." The town of Estherslope represents a small microcosm of America, with its noble, donut-loving police (played by Bill Pullman), bored teens, depressive industrial economy, and a perceived threat of violence around every corner, regardless if said threat actually exists. Von Trier is having a good time arranging his contradictions, stereotypes, and townsfolk in highly theatrical ways, looking for that perfect time to unleash the spoiler: the gun.
The Dandies don't just love their weapon of choice, they worship it. The gang indulges their "pacifism" with target practice games, they name their weapons, and, in the film's most inspired bit of lunacy, they dress in costume and parade around the town at night embracing their holy power of restraint (scored to the music of The Zombies). What Von Trier and Vinterberg are trying to communicate with the Dandies' behavior is both obvious and impenetrable, but clearly the two love the idea of pacifists completely intoxicated with their own weapons. As dramatic gas, this theme propels "Wendy" to nearly operatic heights, which is highly entertaining in the way Von Trier's more extravagant films are. But to be honest, after so many films detailing, criticizing, and judging the American experience, Von Trier needs to grow up and get on a plane and see the land with his own eyes.
As "Wendy" draws to a close, Von Trier's ideas soon grow more desperate, including the introduction of an African-American character (Danso Gordon) that instantly incites jealousy from the males, and sexual curiosity from the female. After building the Dandies' sense of loyalty and verve of dedication to their beliefs, the filmmakers pay this off with, honestly, the only way they could: staging a western-style gunfight for the finale.
Enhanced with diagrams demonstrating the precision in which the Dandies fight, and intercut with medical footage of a bullet's journey through the soft pink mush of a human body, the climax of "Wendy" captures all the good inspirations and momentum that the film features. It's outlandish and heartbreaking, and gives Von Trier the expected ending he's favored for most of his career. "Dear Wendy" might have a bizarre sense of locale and idolatry, but the imagination (and mad genius) of the filmmakers is just enough to help swallow their incredibly condescending posturing.
My rating: B+