Judge Brendan Babish likes to go to the playground and watch the children jumping up and down. They don't know he's only using blanks.
One shot is all it takes.
From a script written by Lars Von Trier (Dogville) and directed by Thomas Vinterberg (director of The Celebration and a colleague of Von Trier's in the Dogme movement) comes Dear Wendy, another anti-American polemic from a man who has yet to ever set foot in the country.
Facts of the Case
Dear Wendy is a story about a boy and his gun. Little Dick (Jamie Bell, Undertow) purchases what he assumes is a toy gun as a gift for a young friend. Upon discovering that the gun is real, he retreats into the mines of his small town for target practice with his gun enthusiast co-worker, Stevie (Mark Webber, Broken Flowers). The two name their weapons (Dick names his Wendy) and begin carrying them while walking through town. Both soon realize that packing heat makes them feel confident and powerful. Dick and Stevie begin spreading the word to all the local losers, who join them down in the mine for wine drinking and target practice. The group, dubbed the Dandies, begins spending nearly all their time studying weaponry while cloistered underground.
Sebastian (Danso Gordon), a young delinquent, joins the Dandies and takes a liking towards Wendy. Dick's jealousy over the budding relationship between Sebastian and his firearm quickly destabilizes the group. You don't think a group of surly, self-important teenagers are going to resort to violence to solve their problems, do you?
Though directed by Vinterberg, Dear Wendy has all the markings of a Lars Von Trier film. In some ways this is welcome, in other ways not. Like Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay, Dear Wendy is set in a non-descript, blue-collar American town. Also like those films, Dear Wendy was actually shot in Denmark. The layout of the town square in Dear Wendy is incredibly similar to the stage design Von Trier used as a stand in for the town square in Dogville. Thankfully, Vinterberg does not use a stage here, and has found a surprisingly convincing stand in for America in his home country (an abandoned military base outside of Copenhagen).
Also similar to Von Trier's films, Dear Wendy features exceptionally strong acting. Whereas Von Trier has the cache to entice big name talent to his productions (Bjork, Nicole Kidman), Vitterberg has done a commendable job culling this exceptional cast from relative unknowns. With the exception of Bill Pullman (Independence Day), who cameos as a small town cop, the biggest name in the cast is Jamie Bell. Though Bell is far from a household name, his work in Billy Elliot and Undertow was exceptional, especially for someone so young. Bell is one of the best young actors working today, and his performance in Dear Wendy only confirms that. His young co-stars also give spirited performances that elevate the first half of the movie above its bland conceits.
For the first hour, the only message Dear Wendy seems to espouse is that kids, especially those who lack self-confidence, will enjoy the power that comes with packing heat. Gee, really? However, with poetic direction, strong acting, and a classic rock soundtrack, the movie moves along amiably enough. But then Sebastian joins the gang, violence breaks out and, through heavy-handed symbolism, we are reminded again of how Von Trier's visceral hatred of America has dominated his career for the past several years.
To be fair, Von Trier and Vinterberg both insist that the film was not intended to be a political allegory about gun use or violence in America. However, with Von Trier's openly critical views of American society, and the film's descent into mindless violence, I find their denials disingenuous. Even if the two never meant to create a parable to decry gun use in America (which I doubt), they are both surely smart enough to recognize that their story would be taken as such by most who saw it. Consequently, most American critics justifiably eviscerated Dear Wendy for its heavy handed moralizing.
That said, it doesn't really matter what Von Trier or Vinterberg meant to convey with this film; the movie's final act fails both as a diatribe against America's (supposed) culture of violence and as a piece of straightforward storytelling. The set-up for the movie's denouement, which involves an absurd amount of preparation to simply escort an elderly woman across the town square, simply makes no sense. Then, when violence breaks out, the gun fighting is clumsily staged and entirely incomprehensible. The violence is also sensationalized to such an extent that it betrays the movie's (alleged) defaming of America's violent nature. This makes it difficult to tell if the film is an exaggerated satire or incomprehensible screed. Either way, it makes for a disappointing conclusion to a promising film.
Wellsping Media has put together an impressive DVD for Dear Wendy. The picture is clear and adequately showcases the impressive shantytown that was constructed for the film. The Zombies-infused soundtrack is loud and vibrant and perfectly compliments the movie's action sequences. There is an impressive trove of extras on the disc as well. "Letters to Dear Wendy" is one of the finer made-for-DVD documentaries I have ever seen. The five deleted scenes are all full scenes, no extensions or outtakes here. The highlight is an alternate ending that is strangely even more muddled than the true finale. While the commentary track with Vinterberg and his director of photography is rather dry, there is a far more interesting commentary by the cast, who all recount their experiences working on the film. Their recollections make it all sound similar to going away to camp for the summer. Except they got to fire guns.
Though Dear Wendy is an entertaining and well-acted film, it is going to attract few admirers. Those who enjoy violent shoot'em ups are going to be turned off by the film's odd sensibilities and perceived anti-American stance. Those who abhor gun use and/or America's propensity for violence will find the character's love of firearms incomprehensible and the film's third act full of excessive bloodshed. Though the movie has some redeeming features, I can't say that it deserves any better.
Guilty of unfairly, and unconvincingly, chiding America for its obsession with guns. Mr. Von Trier, before your next harangue against America, don't you think it's about time you came over and paid us a visit?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Documentary Short: "Letters to Dear Wendy"
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