Director Thomas Vinterberg and writer Lars Von Trier claim that Dear Wendy is not a political allegory about gun violence or America. But this is precisely what it is. The point is made from the star, in the film’s setting, the mining center Estherslope, characterized by poverty, pettiness, and racism.
It’s difficult to resist getting all psychoanalytic on Dear Wendy, as it is excessively Freudian in its phallic imagery and representations of power. I’m talking about the guns of course. Dear Wendy opens as a kind of epistolary romance, in which our hero/narrator Dick (Jamie Bell) is writing a love letter to the unseen “Wendy.” We quickly learn that Wendy is Dick’s gun. Dick and his fellow outcast Stevie (Mark Webber) start a club, the Dandies, in order to indulge their love of guns.
Still, they tell themselves they’re not violent. Dick establishes the Dandies’ position early on: “I’m a pacifist, so I’d never think of shooting anyone.” Instead, the Dandies stake a claim to masculinity through their fetishization of guns. Freud conjectured that fetishism disavowed the missing penis/phallus of the woman (and further negotiated castration anxiety) via that missing part’s displacement onto an exterior object. Here Wendy is the fully phallic (and fantasmatic) female. And it’s not just the biological boys who succumb to such fetishism. The sole girl Dandy, Susan (Allison Pill), does so doubly. Susan is the only Dandy to own and handle two guns, which she names Grant and Lee.
The Dandies dress to fit their ideal, parading around the town’s central square at night in capes, feathered caps, and brocade jackets. This gear stands in contrast to the rest of the community’s mining uniforms and bland civilian dress. Sheriff Krugsby (Bill Pullman) tells the Dandies, “You’re the kind of boys this country is built on.”
This “dandy” look finds a counterpoint in Sebastian (Danso Gordon), the last and only Black member of the group. Krugsby asks Dick to play “probation officer” for Sebastian, who has committed a murder. The distinction is clear: Sebastian represents the “reality” of guns and violence that belies the romantic ideals of Dick and Co. The unrecuperated racism of this Black vs. White agon couldn’t be more obvious. White people romanticize guns, while Black people are realistic about their power, use, and dangers. And of course, it’s the Black man who intrudes and claims authority over white womanhood, when he fires Wendy (a Dandy no-no) and inspires Susan to name him sexually appealing. His introduction into the group destroys the white boys’ idyll. Sheesh.
Dear Wendy further allegorizes the effects of gun culture on American youth. All of the Dandies are teenagers. To make a point about easy access to guns and mythologization of guns as panacea for justice, Dear Wendy includes among them clear ciphers of picked-on boys like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Disabled boy Huey (Chris Owen) and his outcast brother Freddie (Michael Angarano) both find in the Dandies some means to restitution for being beaten by stronger, more popular boys at school.
Dear Wendy piles stereotype upon cliché. We get it. In a culture that romanticizes guns to excess, the downtrodden, dispossessed, and “deviant” will “naturally” turn to weapons to solve personal and social ills. Our refusal to do anything but wring our hands, decry violence without considering the larger social issues that produce it, and wait for “criminals” to step out of bounds in order to put them in jail, is one of America’s greatest shames. It’s hard to argue against Dear Wendy‘s logic and critique.
I don’t fault Vinterberg and Von Trier for making a film that launches such a critique, especially insofar as the process they depict is directly connected to U.S. military actions and aggrandizing of war. Despite rising U.S. popular dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, we still hew to the national fantasy of the “honor” and “glory” of war. The problem is that to make that case, Dear Wendy resorts to trite, repetitious narrative and visual metaphors, and overheated symbology.