Unable to decide what kind of movie it is, Thomas Vinterberg’s “Dear Wendy” is a major disappointment, a film that’s one the one hand academic and doctrinaire, and on the other a wannabe hot youth movie in the tradition of “Trainspotting.” Latter claim is supported by the vibrant way the movie was shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (“28 Days Later”) and by its soundtrack of songs from the 1960s pop group, The Zombies.
Vinterberg’s previous film, “The Celebration” was a dazzling family drama, shot in accordance to “Dogma 95” manifesto that Vinterberg co-established with his fellow Dogmatic, Lars von Trier, who’s now the writer of “Dear Wendy.”
A fable of dreamy young pacifists whose idea of happiness is holding a gun, “Dear Wendy” was shot in provincial locales in Denmark and Germany. In spirit, however, it belongs to Von Trier’s string of exposes, such as “Dogville” (which is a much better picture) about the corrosive American character and the corrupt political system of capitalism.
Stylistically, though the two works are vastly different. Whereas “Dogville” was Brechtian, theatrical, and deliberately artificial, a cross between “Our Town” and “High Noon,” “Dear Wendy” aspires to be more realistic. In the press notes, Von Trier says that he wanted Vinterberg to direct because he could “add absurdities of realism.” Watching the film, there’s more absurdity than realism to notice.
In a drab American mining village called Estherslope, a youngster, Dick Dandelion (Jamie Bell) writes a farewell love letter to Wendy, his antique pistol. The narrative unfolds as one long flashback that tries to explain how Dick and his pistol first met and then bonded for life.
Through Dick’s flat voiceovers, we are introduced to his pal, Stevie (Mark Webber), who spearheaded with Dick a gun club comprising a group of outcasts. These “dandies” dress in nineteenth and early twentieth century costumes and meet in an abandoned mine shaft where they discuss firearms and exit wounds and bullet trajectories. They are meant to reflect a paradox: peace-loving, gun-toting youths in the thrall of what their leaders describe as “this dark, secret passion of ours.” These dead-end kids brandish pistols as substitutes for any contact, emotional or sexual. “Yours is so tiny,” Stevie says to Dick regarding his weapon in a characteristic double-entendre line.
Like most of Von Trier’s films, “Dear Wendy” is an allegory about guns and violence in America. The characters are all one-dimensional, including Officer Krugsby (Bill Pullman), who at one point tells Dick that he’s the type of kid who made America “great.” It’s up to you, dear viewer, to interpret the meaning of America’s “greatness, but I won’t blame you if you scream cynicism.
So who are these characters They are young people in a poverty-stricken coal-mining town somewhere in the American Southeast. Dick Dandelion is an American teenager who has lived in the rural Southern working-class town of Estherslope for all his life. He observes how fathers and sons file to work in the coal mines, a relentless sameness that causes Dick to wonder if there is something greater out there for him. One day, he becomes enchanted by a toy gun he spots in the window of the general store on Electric Park Square. He purchases it as a gift for a friend’s birthday. But being a self-identified pacifist, Dick can’t bear to give his friend a firearm as a present. Unable to exchange the gun, Dick decides to keep it for himself, and begins to enjoy how the beautiful object feels smooth and nice in his pocket.
Soon after, his father dies, leaving Dick alone and worried for his future. He forgets about the gun and submits to the daily grind. To escape a life in the mines, Dick takes a job at the general store, alongside co-workers Stevie and Susan, both fellow outsiders. After hearing from Stevie the paranoid local rumors of armed gangs preying on Estherslope and its surroundings, Dick discovers that his gun is hardly a toy–it’s a 6.65 mm double-action revolver that fires real bullets. He starts carrying the weapon around with him, even firing it with Stevie in a forgotten shaft of the local mine. His friend is as enamoured of guns as Dick he is.
Dick christens his gun Wendy after Stevie insists it looks like a gun that might belong to a woman. In due course, Dick comes to view Wendy as his best friend, carrying it to work with him during the day and firing it in the mines until he becomes an expert shot. Soon, Dick’s confidence is transformed and he’s promoted at work. He develops a swagger a la John Wayne and begins to see Electric Square as his self-appointed turf, with Stevie as its co-protector. They are no longer small-town losers.
These self-described “pacifists with guns” seek out new converts–fellow Estherslope misfits including the “novelty” of having a woman, Susan, and the siblings Freddy and Huey. Together they soon become known as The Dandies, a close-knit social experiment that Dick hopes will help them become happier and more confident, a fellowship based around arms.
The shooting gallery in the mine becomes a clubhouse, “The Temple,” replete with secret signs, hand signals and drunken initiation rites, as the Dandies begin to immerse themselves in the all-consuming joy of guns and gunplay. They study American history and forensic science and the pathology of a bullet’s trajectory in order to give their pacifism the right context. They make a solemn vow to carry their guns with them at all times without ever brandishing them in public.
During target practice in the mines, away from the prying eyes of Etherslope locals, the Dandies develop wildly inventive new styles of shooting, including complicated ricochet techniques and flamboyant firing positions. They begin to dress in outfits that reference the styles of the Old American West and the Edwardian Dandies, whose wit and swagger cut a handsome swath through nineteenth century high culture.
Confident in their newfound collective swagger, the Dandies begin taking to the streets of Estherslope, arousing the suspicion of the nosy Officer Krugsby, who persuades Dick to serve as a mentor to the recently paroled Sebastian, a local thug and parolee, who is the son of the Dandelions’ former maid Clarabelle.
Dick tries to make a pacifist out of Sebastian, who is a convicted killer, by indoctrinating him into the peace-loving Dandies. Sebastian is reluctant to join until he’s offered a gun; in turn, he introduces the Dandies to the thrill of semi-automatic weapons. Susan develops a crush on Sebastian and his exoticism, which makes Dick jealous. Soon Sebastian’s popularity becomes too much to bear; never mind that he’s a much better shot than Dick.
Please don’t read beyond this point as discussion contains plot points
Things change, when Sebastian breaks a major Dandy rule: Never touch another member’s gun. After Sebastian touches Wendy, Dick casts him out of the fold, even after the other Dandies beg Dick to let Sebastian stay. Dick retreats into solitude, questioning his life once again, until Sebastian coaxes him back into the fold.
To re-establish the fortitude of the Dandies, Dick sets to organize an exercise whereby the Dandies accompany the mentally fragile Clarabelle, who is convinced that gangs have taken over Estherslope, across Electric Square so she can pay a visit to her cousin. But Clarabelle becomes paranoid and fires on a police officer with a rifle hidden in her coat.
The Dandies retreat to The Temple and plot their next move, while Officer Krugsby rallies his troops against the gun-crazy Dandies. A tense standoff ensues as the police hold Clarabelle in exchange for the Dandies’ relinquishment of their weapons. But Krugsby goes back on his word, prompting the Dandies to barricade themselves in their lair once again. Krugsby confiscates Wendy in the process, offering Dick no choice but to ascend to the surface to reclaim his only love.
The Dandies don their costumes, amass copious firepower, and descend on Electric Square, primed for battle. A police marshal tries to maintain order, but is quickly felled by a Dandy’s bullet. A sniper fires on Huey in retaliation; Stevie’s ricochet prowess takes down the sniper. Electric Square erupts in a full-blown siege as each of the Dandies goes out in a proverbial blaze of glory, with Dick ultimately expiring from a bullet fired at the hand of Sebastian, out of the chamber of none other than his beloved Wendy.
It’s easy to dismiss “Dear Wendy” along both intellectual and artistic yardsticks. However, I took the pain to describe the plot in detail in order to show how schematically rigid and ideological the whole movie is. With all the reservations some critics had about “Elephant,” Gus Van Sant’s Cannes Festival winner is a superior film as an expose of the rampant violence among American youths, deeper and more honest thematically, and smoother and more elegant stylistically.