Dick loves Wendy. As this film opens, he's writing her a love letter, recounting the story of their romance from fateful first meeting through marriage and beyond, to the day when their love is put to the test by the arrival of another man.
Right back to Shakespeare, love stories end one of two ways—in weddings or in death. Dear Wendy is more Romeo & Juliet than Midsummer Night's Dream, moving past the "happy ever after" of romantic comedy right through to the "till death us do part" of tragedy, and the big questions of choice and destiny: did we choose our love, or did love choose us? Tragic lovers only know that once their fates are joined, once they abandon themselves to such an all-consuming love, everything else follows with relentless inevitability.
That's how Dick loves Wendy; helplessly, obsessively, tragically. Dear Wendy is story of star-crossed lovers that's as ancient as it is familiar. With one crucial variation on the theme: Wendy is a gun. Specifically, a 6.35mm six-shooter, a sweet little double action pearl handle revolver with internal hammer who makes a new man of Dick, turns a weak and sensitive loner into a man with confidence and authority. A good woman or the right gun can do that.
Dick (Jamie Bell) refuses to follow in the footsteps of the town's real men and work in the mine. He stocks shelves in the corner grocery and carts around a toy gun from a second-hand shop, comforting himself with smug judgments of the town's other inhabitants—as much an echo of writer Lars von Trier's Dogville as the story's stylized small-town setting. It's not until he hooks up with the gun-loving Stevie that Dick learns the true power of what he carries in his pocket. His life begins to change. He's a natural shooter who can plant six shots in the center of a target without aiming or even thinking. Wendy and Dick are made for each other.
Problem is, one of Dick's strategies for moral superiority has been to call himself a pacifist—a label Stevie quickly claims as a way of cementing their friendship. But they decide that's no problem at all: their firearms will be carried but not brandished. Why bother? Just packing heat makes them walk taller—of course they're never going to use their weapons. It's a naive rationalization that contains the seed of their eventual tragedy.
"Pacifists with guns." It's an idea that's just too good not to share, especially since there are others out there who need what they've discovered. After all, Stevie notes, "We're not the only losers in Electric Park." So they form The Dandies, complete with secret passwords and symbols, rituals and pledges, even dress-up clothes and a secret clubhouse they fix up in an abandoned part of the mine. It's got everything you could want in a secret club for kids. Big kids. Kids with guns.
Of course, as Ibsen taught us, a gun on the mantle in Act One must be used before the curtain comes down on Act Three. Complications arise, and sudden violence escalates into a bloody Butch Cassidy / Wild Bunch showdown in the town square, triggered by a tragic misunderstanding.
Well, not exactly tragic. This sad-fated tale doesn't actually aim for the emotional catharsis of tragedy. Its tongue is mostly in its cheek, and it's plenty cheeky. Dogville is to Dear Wendy as A Clockwork Orange is to Doctor Strangelove. The "I can walk" climax is a direct nod to that other over-the-top satire of the American weapons fetish: this movie could easily be subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Gun." Everything is played with a brash style and ironic tone that signals satire more than sentiment: Dear Wendy doesn't want to break our heart, it wants to poke us in the eye or slap us upside the head.
This is the type of movie that makes Americans mad—which no doubt makes Vinterberg and von Trier perfectly happy. The not-so-melancholy Danes are in mischief-maker mode, court jesters whose cinematic smackdown chooses provocation over subtlety. Some reviewers will find the movie glib, its characters, situations and plot developments absurd: I'm guessing the filmmakers simply find America's love affair with guns to be equally absurd, and are quite content to match style and subject.
Style they've got. The visual design is highly theatrical, and when this band of armed and dangerous losers dress up Dandy and flourish their firearms, the film displays some real artistic chops: each character dances toward the camera in full thrift-store-Edwardian regalia before being freeze-framed and diagrammed, their name and weapon doodled ornately on the screen. A groovy Zombies soundtrack means you'll never hear "It's the time of the season for loving" quite the same way, and po-mo pop culture vultures—especially Kubrick fans—will love playing "spot the movie reference." The young actors are strong, especially the wonderful Alison Pill in a sexy contrast to her Pieces of April turn, and the remarkably assured and charismatic newcomer Danso Gordon. Bill Pullman turns in a caricature performance that nails the satiric tone of the movie—and which you may love or hate precisely in proportion to how much you love or hate this bratty little movie.
Whether you love or hate this movie may depend on whether you feel it's your nose that's being tweaked by the town fools. If you're pretty convinced that guns don't kill people, etc., that your country's more right than wrong and that America's current war "is really about peace," you'll likely find this movie by a couple of Europeans facile, as condescending and self-righteous as its misguided central character. On the other hand, if you consider all this Gunfight at the OK Corral stuff a poor way to run a country, Dear Wendy may seem a perfectly appropriate response, gleefully deconstructing our love of power and the dreadful gravitational pull of violence.
I don't go looking for a gospel message in every film I see. But I do have this habit of taking everything life brings my way—film included—and holding it up against the Bible, to see what light might be refracted. When I wonder what sort of letter Jesus might write to Wendy and her lover, I think of his words to Peter; "All who draw the sword will die by the sword."
Maybe he said that because, if nothing else, weapons are power. Intoxicating power. Dear Wendy charts the corruption wrought by that kind of power, observing the way young ideals fall by the way once easier, quicker, more decisive strategies present themselves.
Maybe what we've got here isn't exactly a love story or a tragedy, or even a satire. Maybe Dear Wendy is film noir in disguise, without tough detectives or moody black-and-white cinematography. Naive, corruptible, lonely young man meets femme fatale, and it all leads, inevitably, absurdly, to destruction.
Some dames you just can't trust. Dames like Wendy.Discussion starters
- What do you think of Dick and Stevie's pacifism? Is it sincere? Did you find Dick's growing fascination with guns convincing?
- Jesus warned his followers not to use violence (Matt. 5:38-39; Matt. 26:52, John 18:36), yet because of the reality of evil, many Christians consider it necessary that police or military personnel should carry weapons. How do you reconcile these things?
- What is the cause of the final shootout in the film? Does this seem convincing to you? Are the filmmakers saying that violence is folly, or that it is inevitable?
- The filmmakers seem to view America as a violent culture. Do you see it that way? Is the U.S. any different than the rest of the world in this respect? How does the presence of Christians in any culture affect the level of violence there?
- Screenwriter Lars von Trier says a film "should be like a rock in the shoe." Jesus' parables have been compared to the bit of grit in the oyster that becomes a "pearl of great price." Are movies sometimes modern parables? Does Dear Wendy have that effect? What other movies have that effect?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
This is not a movie for kids—or for adults who are sensitive to violence. The film climaxes in a long and violent gun battle in which a number of people are painfully wounded or killed. There are some language concerns, though the Lord's name is not used in vain. In one scene a young woman bares her breasts in a non-sexual context, and another character speaks about male genitalia.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/06/05
Director Lars Von Trier stirred up controversy amongst Christian film critics last year for his bold, minimalist drama called Dogville. They seemed to either love it or hate it. This year, the sequel called Manderlay is earning mixed reviews at film festivals, but it has yet to screen for most critics.
Meanwhile, Von Trier's script for a film called Dear Wendy has been directed by Thomas Vinterberg, the acclaimed filmmaker who made The Celebration. Filmed in Denmark, Dear Wendy tells the story of a small American mining town, in which a miner's son (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott) forms a club called The Dandies, a group of kids obsessed with their handguns. Like David Cronenberg's current hit A History of Violence, this is all headed toward violence … and a commentary on violence, of course.
Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It is true that this film can and should be seen as being about more than America. It is not only about us, it is about the way the feeling of power can seduce us into thinking our virtue is enough to restrain us, even if others can't be trusted with such power. … Obviously this film will not be winning any awards from the National Rifle Association. But it may not be accurate to call it anti-gun. What it does is challenge our romantic ideas about guns and our idea that our guns (and other weapons) really give us security. … As with almost all films from von Trier or Vinterberg, Dear Wendy will upset a number of people. Perhaps what makes their films so upsetting is not just their outsider status as they look at American culture, but also that there is truth in what they tell us about ourselves."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "offbeat, sometimes compelling, but ultimately puzzling. … Vinterberg skillfully shows how these lonely teenagers become enamored of guns and, though never intending to use them for violent means, are swept up in the weapons' mystique and power. It's a highly intriguing premise, with parallels on a global scale, but the picture falls far short of gripping."
Mainstream critics are disillusioned with Vinterberg's work.