"When I was just a baby
My momma told me 'Son
Always be a good boy
Don't ever play with guns.'"
-Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues"
If you can picture a movie that can be described as "Stand by Me" meets "Fight Club" meets "A History of Violence" meets "Bowling for Columbine," you have an idea of what Thomas Vinterberg's "Dear Wendy" (2005) is: a bloody mess, but not without its redeeming aspects.
Though directed by Vinterberg, the film bears the heavy mark of the notorious Lars von Trier who wrote the screenplay. Dick Dandelion (Jamie Bell) lives in Electric Park, a run-down American mining town that looks an awful lot like the run-down American towns in "Dogville" and "Manderlay." Almost but not quite as abstract as these "Flatworld" chalk outlines, the town consists entirely of a single block on Main Street with shops on one side, residences on the other, and "The Mine" somewhere at the end. Dick, a teenager who is one of the few men in town who doesn't work in the mines, has nothing to occupy his time, at least until he stumbles upon something very special: his first gun. It's not quite love at first sight, but once the affair begins, it burns white hot.
Dick shares his passion for firearms and recruits several of his gun crazy friends, including potential love interest Susan (Alison Pill), to form a gang called the Dandies. As you might guess from the name, the Dandies aren't about to give the Bloods or Crips a run for their money. The Dandies are die-hard pacifists who promise to never, ever draw a gun on another person. Instead, they don foppish, antiquated costumes and hide in an abandoned section of the mine where they fire their guns on a makeshift target range. Soon they all become crack shots, and through diligent research become experts on everything gun-related: after all, the only good gun owner is an informed, responsible gun owner.
The Dandies might not plan to shoot anybody, but they sure are "real gun lovers." Each Dandy performs a ritual in which he or she "marries" his sidearm and promises to always be faithful to it. They even name their weapons: Dick names his gun "Wendy" and the film is framed as a letter written to his dearly beloved. I guess you could say that "Dear Wendy" puts the "pistol" in "epistolary." If you wanted to make a bad pun, that is. Which I just did.
I remember the first time I shot a gun. My friend's father-in-law Gary, a real good ol' boy from Georgia, took us to a firing range. He handed me a loaded gun and told me to fire away. Once I emptied the clip (I hit the target once) I turned to Gary, which prompted him to say, "Don't look at me, boy, cause I know you got a hard-on right now!" Actually, if I was stiff it was more of the "scared stiff" variety, but Gary had a point. Shooting a gun, even at a paper target, is an overwhelming emotional experience that doesn't lend itself to clear thought. And this is where the Dandies' theories about pacifism and responsible gun ownership run into trouble. It is also where "Dear Wendy" runs into trouble.
The film's set-up, though it takes too long to develop, is quite fascinating. The allegory Vinterberg and von Trier intend to make of the Dandies is clear. Vinterberg has said that the Western world thinks of themselves as pacifists with guns. Americans think they can be trusted with "weapons of mass destruction" but that the axis of evil can't. As history has shown, boys with big, exploding toys can never be trusted, whether from the East, West or points in-between. Of course, taking potshots at hypocritical Americans has become old hat for von Trier (again, it's difficult not to see this as a von Trier film in so many ways). While this shtick has grown a bit stale, I'm still amused by the righteous indignation of critics who pillory von Trier for attacking a country he's never visited, as if an outsider couldn't offer a valid and enlightening viewpoint. Heck, as far as Danish provocateurs go, von Trier suddenly finds himself eclipsed by a bunch of cartoonists. Can von Trier's "Mohammed" film be far behind?
Unfortunately, the film veers off the tracks when it abruptly and inexplicably introduces an element of racial tension into the story. When Sebastian (Danso Gordon), the black son of Dick's former maid, joins the Dandies (against his will), passions begin to run hot. Dick isn't really jealous when Susan (Allison Pill) makes goo-goo eyes at the new guy, but when Wendy seems to enjoy being held by Sebastian, Dick can barely contain his rage. A dry-run for "Manderlay", von Trier's script suggests that nothing terrifies a white person like black sexuality. This made some sense in "Manderlay" but I have no idea what this has to do with the rest of "Dear Wendy."
The film climaxes in a Peckinpah-esque Grand Guignol when the Dandies clash with the police in a shootout that is even more stylized than the rest of the film. The point here is that not even pacifists can be trusted with weapons (and certainly not Americans), but this doesn't exactly reach the "Dr. Strangelove" level on the profundity meter. You can be forgiven if the final moments induce more guffaws than gasps of astonishment. Guns are bad and even the best of intentions don't mean squat when you've got .45 caliber death in the palm of your hand. Right, and "Drugs are bad, m'kay?" We get it already.
Vinterberg coaxes some fine performances from his young cast of relative unknowns, and the Brechtian look and feel of the film serves the material well. He stages many of the scenes with great aplomb, especially the theatrical rituals performed by the Dandies. The film also makes excellent use of several songs by "The Zombies." If the final product is too heavy-handed to be taken seriously, it still provides enough pleasures along the way to merit a recommendation, albeit an equivocal one.
The film is presented in its original 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. The transfer is crisp and the image quality is excellent. This is one of Wellspring's better transfers in recent memory.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. There are no closed captions or subtitles to support the English audio.
The DVD offers a feature length audio commentary with Vinterberg and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (a long-time collaborator with the Dogme filmmakers.) An additional commentary track includes "Letters" read by Vinterberg and the cast members.
The DVD also includes several additional features.
"Letters to ‘Dear Wendy'" is a featurette (25 min.) which consists of the cast members and Thomas Vinterberg all reading fictional letters written about their experience on the film, mimicking the style of the movie itself.
"The Director and Screenwriter" is a lengthy interview (17 min.) with both Vinterberg and von Trier. Vinterberg doesn't look much older than most of the cast members.
Five Deleted Scenes, including the script's original ending, are also offered. A collection of Wellspring Trailers rounds out the extras.
Thomas Vinterberg's brilliant film "The Celebration" (1998) was not only the first Dogme film, but probably the best (though von Trier's black comedy "The Idiots" is a close contender), and also helped breathe new life into the modern melodrama. Like von Trier, Vinterberg only made one "official" Dogme film: unlike von Trier, he hasn't followed up on his Dogme-inspired success. Vinterberg has only directed two theatrically-released films since "The Celebration." His pseudo sci-fi pic "It's All About Love" (2003) met with little love from either critics or audiences, but it was a smash hit compared to "Dear Wendy" which grossed the princely sum of $23,000 in American theaters, and was mostly dismissed by critics. "Dear Wendy" is not nearly as bad as all that would lead you to believe, but it's certainly no masterpiece. You might find it preposterous or, like me, you might enjoy it despite its obvious and significant flaws.