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Monday, 1 September 2008

Dear Wendy (2005)

If the official view of small town America is what comes out of films like Stand By Me or A Christmas Story, even Back to the Future, then the subversive view is what comes out of films like this, made by people who didn't grow up there: writer Lars von Trier and director Thomas Vinterberg, both Danish and founding members of the Dogme 95 movement that pushed for honesty in filmmaking. This isn't a Dogme 95 film though, it's a more traditionally made film that happens to have a lot of depth. I wonder which approach to small town America is more real: there are certainly no rose coloured glasses here, but there's just as certainly no overt anti-American bias.

It's all about guns, the people who wear them and how those people change. In fact it's a toss up as to who the lead character really is: Dickie, who narrates the story, or his gun Wendy, who he narrates it to. We're in a small American town, but there's nothing to say where or when other than it's a mining community and the middle of the town is Electric Park Square. We follow the entwined stories of a number of young misfits, led by Dickie, who bonds with a fellow shop clerk over use of guns.

Soon there are five of them, banded together into a club they call the Dandies. Guns are the focus but these young misfits are pacifists. Everything is built around the paradox of having guns, knowing how to use them and care of them and shoot them, but never actually bringing them out in public. The point isn't killing anyone, it's about having the empowerment to be able to do so and thus not needing to. In fact 'killing' is seen as a bad word here, instead euphemised into 'loving'.

'Loving' isn't just a euphemism though, but also a parallel, as the guns literally become partners to their owners, even through marriage ceremonies. Everything changes for Dick when Sheriff Krugsby picks him as the probation officer for a young man named Sebastian who has killed someone. Sebastian is the grandson of Dick's old housekeeper, and Dick is such a good boy that he would seem to be a natural pick to keep Sebastian away from guns. However Sebastian picks up Wendy and so Dick's whole life and philosophy suddenly get a serious kick of jealousy.

There's so much depth here that it's not easy to see everything that Lars Von Trier was intending us to see. Whole essays could be written about the loving/killing angle that equates both love and sex with death. Both are very apparent here. They could also be written about how fear is handled in this movie. In the Dandy philosophy guns are a tool of empowerment, not through actually using them but through awareness of their power. Every one of the Dandies changes through mere possession of a gun, seemingly into a better and fuller person. They find belonging and purpose. Nobody understands, of course. The gun is also an extension of the self, and so carries according characteristics. The Dandies trust people based on what sort of gun they carry: they certainly don't trust people who carry what they see to be treacherous guns.

Jamie Bell, initially best known as a dancer, is excellent in the lead. He was Billy Elliot in the film of the same name and it's good to see him taking on such diverse and interesting roles, from Billy Elliot to Nicholas Nickleby, from Dear Wendy to King Kong, from Flags of Our Fathers to Jumper. Bill Pullman, as Sheriff Krugsby, is the biggest name in the film and he gets a much smaller though integral part. People I don't know, such as Michael Angarano, Danso Gordon, Chris Owen, Alison Pill and Mark Webber fill out the cast in a talented fashion, along with Novella Nelson as a cranky old black woman and Thomas Vinterberg's good luck charm, Thomas Bo Larsen in a tiny role.

It's the story that carries this one again though, though Vinterberg uses some interesting cinematic devices to get his point across and to reference other parts of the film. Most obvious is in the final shootout scene, where we see certain things from the perspectives of those doing the shooting or being shot, not visually but mentally. Shots are taken with accompanying trajectory patterns or received in the manner of a documentary on forensic wounds. What a fascinating and thought inspiring film.

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