Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy back from the dead.
Dir: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Bill Pullman
IMDb rating: 6.5
Metacritic rating: 33
One year after directing the provocative and experimental Dogville, Lars von Trier teamed up with Dogme ’95 co-conspirator Thomas Vinterberg on Dear Wendy. Upon release, it was unfairly compared to von Trier’s previous film, as the two share some similar DNA, and it was critically panned across the board, despite Vinterberg winning Best Director at the Moscow Film Festival that year. Called “annoyingly simplistic” by one commenter, Dear Wendy does not get the love it deserves as the dark, fairytale Western that it is.
Dismissed as “annoyingly simplistic,” Dear Wendy does not get the love it deserves as the dark, fairytale Western that it is
The film is narrated as a letter to ‘Wendy’ by Dickie Dandelion (Bell) who lives in the mining town of Electric Park. Too afraid to go down into the mines to work with his father, and really a bit of a loser all around, Dickie gets a job at a department store where he meets Stevie (Webber), another ne’er-do-well who is obsessed with guns and the effect they have on the human body. Having previously bought a gun in the general store run by Susan (Pill), Dickie is brought into Stevie’s obsession and they invite Susan and a few of the other loners in town to form a club for “pacifists with guns,” inspired by the music of the 1960s pop group The Zombies. Before too long, they have built themselves a clubhouse in an abandoned mine shaft, and The Dandies are born.
The kids form what can only be described as a “gun cult” as each of them acquire and name their own guns and set about practising with them, researching bullet calibres and exit wounds. They create rituals around these activities, creating their own language and costumes, to reshape the world into a place they feel comfortable, and even powerful. Instead of something being merely “good,” it becomes “dandy,” as if it is akin to their philosophy. They vow only ever to carry their guns, or “partners,” as moral support, never to brandish them and never to fire them because of the chance of killing, or in their patois “loving,” someone.
It is the potential for power, not the power itself that has the ability to transform, and is what sets the Dandies apart from the rest of society. Of course this pacifist experiment comes into conflict with the status quo (represented by the town’s Sheriff, played by Bill Pullman) and the perfect little world the Dandies have made for themselves begins to unravel. It becomes, as The Zombies song says, “The time of the season for loving.”
Dear Wendy investigates the allure of firearms and America’s relationship to them as dual agents of freedom and destruction
Using the small town as a microcosm, writer von Trier paints a darkly tinged, nostalgic love letter to the anti-authoritarian nature of rebellion, which doubles as an indictment of the American Dream. Vinterberg, as director, furthers this aim by injecting the proceedings with a youthful energy and enthusiasm with just a pang of naivety. On the surface, Dear Wendy does appear to be simplistic, but it is the simplicity of a fairytale. Archetypal characters play out a twisted morality play that investigates the mysterious, almost alien allure of firearms and America’s relationship to them as dual agents of freedom and destruction. These themes are underscored with questions on the true nature of passivity in a world of fear, and the very American idea of violence as a tool for peace.
While at first glance Dear Wendy appears to be a well-made trifle with a few hard edges, a deeper look reveals a film very much in line with the filmmakers’ Scandinavian sensibilities (think also Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent work). Intriguingly, Lars von Trier has never been to America and is more interested in the ‘idea’ of America than the physical country, so when seen in the context of his films of the period, Dear Wendy shares similar concerns as those of Dogville and its sequel Manderlay.
Dear Wendy is an outsider’s scathing look at America’s relationship with its past and the violence that not only helped create it, but is still very much a part of its sociological make up. Dear Wendy is an exciting, fascinating, under-seen film maligned by those who were unwilling or unable to see below the surface, but it is beneath this surface where the true gems are found.
All images: Wellspring Media