The Danish director Lars von Trier has never been to America, and yet, for at least the fourth time now, he's made a movie about the place -- or at least the state of mind. Written by von Trier, and directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Dear Wendy is another parable of von Trier's America. It's also a disturbingly realistic scenario of how a self-proclaimed "pacifist" who wants to "save the world" gives in to the lure and power of cold metal and hot lead.
In Dogville, which von Trier wrote and directed -- and filmed in Denmark, on a bare stage, with chalk outlines to represent buildings and walls -- his Small American Town was a cesspool of sexual violence and bloody revenge. Now, in Dear Wendy, everything is realistic (up to a point), but his world in no less ominous and symbolic.
His film's eponymous "Wendy" is a gun, and the "Dear" part is a letter written to it (her?) by Dick (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot), a teen-ager forced to work in a coal mine by his hot-headed widower father. When Dad drops dead on the job one day during a tirade, Dick finds himself alone in the world. Puttering about the house, he finds a toy gun that he almost gave someone as a birthday gift a few years earlier. Except it's not a toy, something he learns only when his gun-obsessed friend Steve teaches him how to use it.
Steve is a lost boy with no life of the mind, so naturally guns fascinate him. But Dick has merely grown bored with his desolate life, and when Steve begins to edify him -- for example, on the difference between entrance and exit wounds -- he gives up and gives in. Together they form a sort of Armed Poets Society, drawing in a few other neighborhood kids, and taking over an abandoned building as a clubhouse, where they read poetry, develop their philosophy, and learn about guns.
Von Trier tells his story without sensationalizing it, and Vinterberg presents it in crisply lit shadows, his camera just a bit jittery, as if ready to run for cover. The kids' dialogue is a mix of chilling naïveté and haunting naturalism. Their idyllic town -- it's essentially Dogville, only with real buildings (and in Denmark) -- has a corner market, a kindly sheriff (Bill Pullman) who's also a bit of a racist, and a shopkeeper who frets needlessly about getting held up.
The young actors in Dear Wendy are outstanding, especially Bell, whose American accent is flawless, something you can't say for most of his older British peers. The film's message is tonic, a companion tract to Elephant and Zero Day, two American riffs on Columbine, and it flirts with the possibility that not even a village can stave this plague. It ends, as all American myths must, at high noon, on a very bad day at Black Rock.