Lars von Trier, that self-appointed specialist in the nuances of American culture, is up to his old tricks in “Dear Wendy.” Despite having been directed by his Dogme partner Thomas Vinterberg, this latest melodrama of annihilation from Zentropa has screenwriter von Trier’s fingerprints all over it, especially in regard to its charming insights into smalltown life in the U.S. Given that even Nicole Kidman’s name couldn’t breathe commercial life into the similarly deterministic “Dogville,” B.O. prospects look grim for this well made but unlikable and dramatically absurd picture.
Von Trier wrote “Dear Wendy” with the intention of directing it himself, and, while it is not officially part of his so-called American trilogy-in-progress, which began with “Dogville” and continues this year with “Manderlay,” it just as well could be, given its confrontational theme and identical dramatic trajectory.
Although it does have three-dimensional sets (built on an abandoned Danish military base) rather than chalk marks on the floor, pic still feels abstracted in space and especially in time. Action takes place in and around Electric Park Square, the fraying heart of a Rust Belt mining town with one foot in the 19th century and the other in more or less modern times.
A boy too “sensitive” to work in the mines with his dad, Dick (Jamie Bell) is coddled by black maid Clarabelle (Novella Nelson) and has no real attachments in his life until shop girl Susan (Alison Pill) sells him an ostensibly toy gun that turns out to be the real thing.
Falling in love with the small pistol, Dick names it “Wendy” (the voice-over narration consists of a long letter he reads to “her”), and in short order he forms a secret society called the Dandies, an eventual quintet of local losers who gain newfound confidence by packing heat.
Twist is that the Dandies are a pacifist gang whose members never intend to use their weapons. “We carry them as moral supports,” Dick proclaims, adding “they must never be brandished.” But as the teens begin watching extreme slow motion footage of bullets’ impact on flesh and taking target practice, a sense of foreboding and doom envelopes the proceedings that points inevitably — this being a von Trier creation — toward things turning out very badly indeed.
Boisterous interplay among the kids is engaging up to a point, and Vinterberg, after the ambitious misstep of “It’s All About Love,” demonstrates he’s still got the knack for directing group scenes he demonstrated so bracingly in “The Celebration.” The Dandies begin strutting like a Wild West enforcer squad through the allegedly dangerous town (oddly, no outlawry is to be seen), but they still seem like harmless kids simply engaged in an off-beat hobby.
In a move some will see as an affront and others merely as a sort of rude boy provocation, von Trier and Vinterberg introduce trouble in the form of a black kid, Sebastian (Danso Gordon), Clarabelle’s grandson, who’s on probation after having killed someone. In the first of a succession of preposterous plot developments, town cop Krugsby (Bill Pullman) asks Dick to serve as Sebastian’s unofficial probation officer, a challenge Dick accepts so he can try to “make a pacifist out of a murderer.”
Ultimately, dramatic logic is completely abandoned when the Dandies are enlisted to provide security for the now-paranoid Clarabelle’s two-minute walk over to her cousin’s house, which unaccountably triggers a stand-off with Krugsby and the police resulting in a climax not unlike that of “The Wild Bunch.”
Point seems to be that, if you have guns, they will eventually be used, which would be fine if “Dear Wendy” were an artfully worked out allegory. The problems are at least two-fold, however. First, the plot doesn’t follow a natural logic, but rather is intentionally contorted to score a philosophical/ideological point.
Second, even more than in “Dogville,” great pains are taken to make the film specifically anti-American, as if the root of all evil were nationally located.
The stars and stripes are prominently included in many compositions, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is laid in almost subliminally at times throughout the picture, swells up over the ending to remove any doubt as to the author’s intent. In a Sundance post-screening Q-and-A, Vinterberg defensively insisted, “I really love America. I desperately wanted not to make a finger-pointing film.” In future, then, he’ll have to work from a script by someone other than von Trier.
Performances by the young thesps are serviceable; lensing and production design, strong. Soundtrack extensively features selections of greatest hits by the Zombies.