Some of Las von Trier’s harshest critics attacked Dogville with the same gusto Bush supporters lambaste anti-war protestors. To criticize America, or to acknowledge that its people have much work to do, means to hate it. And if you’ve never actually stepped inside America, then you shouldn’t even be saying anything about us to begin with, right? It’s this very arrogance that von Trier dissected with Dogville, a morality play set in the American past, filmed in studios in Denmark and Sweden, and mounted by actors who had to pretend a series of chalk lines on the floor represented such things as gooseberry bushes and the walls of buildings. This bareback aesthetic allowed for a no-bullshit study of oppression—a Brechtian distancing approach by a man himself distanced from his story’s geographic bullseye.
Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy, written by von Trier, takes dead aim for us as well, but brings down a country I think only exists in the imagination of its makers. Shot in real places with real sets and real objects, the film is ostensibly set in the present, but who knows if that’s true given the size of the town, it’s indeterminate borders, curious attention to detail (IMDb tells me the film was shot in Denmark and Germany), and asinine characters (it’s as if someone drugged the entire cast of The Chumscrubber and woke them up on the two-block set of Deadwood). The film’s press notes herald its director’s “audacious and stylish exploration of guns and violence in America,” which would be a fair enough assessment if Vinterberg actually conveyed anything that represented a genuine expression of American life, past or present.
In some Everywhereville mining town in the United States, a goody-two-shoes named Dick (Jamie Bell) writes a letter to Wendy, reminiscing about his life in the town and the days leading up to their ostensibly memorable first meeting. Dick’s father dies without fanfare and his black nanny, Clarabelle (Novella Nelson), moves out after “rapidly aging” (or something to that effect—either way, it doesn’t make a lick of sense), leaving the boy to fend for himself. Thanks to his bud Stevie (Mark Webber), Dick inexplicably takes a liking to guns (apparently playing with himself isn’t an option), and together they recruit the half dozen seemingly parentless kids who live in the town in order to form a pacifist gun club called—get this—the Dandies. The plot thickens and the filmmakers choose to play an offensive race card: Wendy is revealed to be a gun and the town sheriff (Bill Pullman) curiously puts Clarabelle’s grandson, Sebastian (Danso Gordon), under Dick’s watch. Von Trier makes it known that Sebastian’s blackness—and nothing else—spells trouble for the Dandies. Surely no one will be the same after he’s incorporated into their little group, and neither will be the size of Alison Pill’s breasts!
Given that no one in Dear Wendy ever travels beyond the buildings and stores in the town’s main block—save for the abandoned warehouse the Dandies hang out in—there’s a sense throughout that we’re watching a parallel universe where the world is flat and stepping just outside the border of the film means falling into some bottomless abyss. In this sense, Vinterberg’s aesthetic evokes a powerful sense of self-containment, but what the story needs to do—but doesn’t—is convey how ideas and information travel into this town and affect the hearts and minds of its people. That is, if Vinterberg and von Trier were seriously interested in exploring the roots of gun violence in this country. Instead, the pair gets off on meticulously showing how bullets tear through people’s bodies and how the town’s young gunslingers get their game down to a mathematical equation. This is effect without cause, and like the blueprints of the mining town the Dandies constantly gawk at, the emotions of the film’s characters are equally schematic.
Von Trier doesn’t need to travel to the United States to understand American displays of oppression because our might is flexed and felt all over the world every day, but our youth’s obsession with gun violence, its intricate ties to television, poverty, class, and familial upbringing is something that almost demands first-hand understanding. The filmmaker’s ideas of American youth are abstractions and the film is a mess of half-cocked, misshapen thoughts about masculinity and race, with every action straining for subtext: why Dick takes to guns so passionately (von Trier might say, “Just because”), why Clarabelle is convinced thugs will kill her if she walks outside her house, and so on. The presentation is too fake to be real and not nearly fake enough to be called avant-garde. America this ain’t, but given its utter lack of common sense and almost fetish-like obsession with its own delusions and pretenses, the film could easily (and more accurately) be sold as an audacious exploration of guns and violence inside Vinterberg and von Trier’s heads.