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Don’t Tread On Me 

In two new films, foreign directors show us their vision of a gun-crazy America

Thursday, Sep 15 2005
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As its title intones, Dear Wendy is a romance, about what happens when Dick Dandelion (Jamie Bell) falls head over heels for the drop-dead beauty of the title. The movie is even told in flashback, framed by a letter Dick writes to his ladylove. Only Wendy is no ordinary gal: She’s a double-action, pearl-handled revolver with an internal hammer — an admittedly obscure object of desire for a committed pacifist who’s been deemed too “sensitive” for a job in the local coal mine. But Dick can’t deny that having Wendy in his pocket infuses him with a newfound self-confidence — it makes him walk taller. He even forms a secret gun-appreciation society called the Dandies and populates it with other town “losers” and misfits, including Huey (Chris Owen), a young man in leg braces; his brother Freddie (Michael Angarano), who’s forever being teased and beaten up over Huey’s disability; Susan (Alison Pill), a wicked good shot who will eventually come to compete with Wendy for Dick’s affections; and Sebastian (Danso Gordon), the delinquent son of the Dandelions’ live-in maid. There’s just one catch to being a Dandy: Members may admire, but never use, their coveted weapons — at least outside of the makeshift firing range they’ve created inside of an abandoned mine shaft. The Dandies are stand-ins for the millions of self-proclaimed “peace-loving Americans” who own guns only for “protection.” Protection from what exactly? Why, other people with guns, of course. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, fueled by the culture of media-fed fear — the one that makes airline passengers skittish around any man in a turban, makes Angelenos petrified to drive south of the 10 freeway and, in Dear Wendy, expresses itself in the form of a “gang problem” that has the denizens of fair Estherslope running scared, despite the lack of any hard evidence that such a problem exists. So it is not long into the film before protection gives way to paranoia — before the constant talk of gang violence wills just such a thing into being — and we witness a vivid illustration of that age-old conventional wisdom: Where there’re guns, they’ll fire.It will surprise few to learn that Dear Wendy, which was directed by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), was written by Vinterberg’s countryman Lars von Trier, whose own Dogville explored the latent cruelty beneath the placid surface of another provincial American mining town and whose forthcoming Manderlay (which premiered this year at Cannes) is about an Alabama plantation where slavery is still in effect, some 70 years after abolition. Dear Wendy isn’t as overtly allegorical as those two pictures — for starters, its sets consist of more than chalk outlines. The mere presence of Trier’s name on a movie, though, is more than enough to rankle those critics and pundits who object to his bottomless desire to comment on the mores of a country upon whose soil he has never set foot. Vinterberg, for his part, has been to America many times — I’ve even seen him here with my own eyes twice — yet, as with Trier, a certain cautious distance is key to his vision of our country. That is, America as it is perceived on foreign shores, compressed into television images and bounced between far-flung satellites. Which, for Trier and Vinterberg, is a country that shoots first and asks questions later. And there has perhaps been no time in our recent history when we have been in greater need of just such a perspective. Dear Wendy starts out as an inspired test case for the continued necessity of the Second Amendment, and only near the end does it lose some of its tightly concentrated focus. The movie builds toward a standoff between the Dandies and the Estherslope authorities (including Bill Pullman as a kindly sheriff) that carries strong echoes of Waco and Ruby Ridge. But Trier and Vinterberg have the Dandies act more aggressively than the victims did in those earlier sieges, muddying the ideological waters in a way that Dear Wendy doesn’t have time to contend with before the end credits roll. In another gunpowder-tinged romance arriving in local theaters on the same day, the metaphor is both more precise and more fully sustained. From its opening images of pickup trucks and painted wood barns, goldenrod wheat fields and vast horizons of green, A History of Violence invokes a heightened, comic-lyric vision of the American “heartland.” It’s a corn-fed, Midwestern reverie about a place where family dinners remain sacred rituals, clean-cut farm boys marry their high school sweethearts, and good, honest men work to support well-adjusted nuclear families. Set to the strains of composer Howard Shore’s stirring, Coplandesque fanfares, it seems the America of Norman Rockwell and Quaker Oats commercials, yet already it is not. For while A History of Violence is set in Millbrook, Indiana, it was filmed entirely in Millbrook, Ontario, by the Canadian director David Cronenberg. And that is but the first of many ways in which this movie ruptures our fantasies. A History of Violence, which was written by Josh Olson, takes its cue from a tradition of films — Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet among them — that use the iconography of the American Dream to lead us toward an American nightmare. It begins when local diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) shoots two men dead during an attempted robbery. The lives of customers and co-workers are saved, and local newspapers and magazines celebrate Tom as a hero. Even his own family — his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), and daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes) — look at him differently after the incident, with awe in their eyes; Edie seems downright turned on by the whole thing. Then some men in dark suits, sunglasses and tinted cars show up in Tom’s diner, acting like they know him. They say that his name isn’t Tom Stall, but Joey Cusack, and that he’s the brother of a fearsome Philadelphia gangster (William Hurt). They even say that, once upon a time, Joey was a pretty scary guy himself.The studio that produced A History of Violence has asked journalists not to reveal any of the movie’s “dramatic plot twists” — in other words, we’re not supposed to reveal whether Tom Stall’s case is one of mistaken identity or something more sinister. In fact, Cronenberg’s movie renders the answer to that question all but irrelevant, because in the moment Tom Stall squeezes that trigger, he becomes Joey Cusack in a way, regardless of whether he ever was Joey Cusack before. In taking another life — two lives — Tom feels a rush of godlike power, and, for a moment, or maybe more than a moment, he likes it. Indeed, Cronenberg suggests, we might all have a Joey buried somewhere inside us, waiting to be loosed from his lamp.A History of Violence is, like so many Cronenbergs before it (The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers), a study in transference and transmutation, no matter those who have pinned it as an atypical effort. It is also something more — a movie that sees, as perhaps only someone on the outside looking in can, how large notions of vigilantism and self-preservation loom in the American consciousness, as if the Confederacy had ended but five minutes ago and cowboys still roamed the wild western ranges. It would be easy to condemn us for that, I suppose, but Cronenberg doesn’t, and it’s actually possible to imagine the film playing as an action crowd-pleaser to a mainstream genre audience that may not be a bit perturbed by (or even aware of) Cronenberg’s stealthy unraveling of the threads of this American life. He holds up a mirror, but he leaves it up to us to recoil at what we see. DEAR WENDY | Directed by THOMAS VINTERBERG | Written by LARS VON TRIER | Produced by SISSE GRAUM JORGENSEN | Released by Wellspring | Opens September 23 at the Nuart A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE | Directed by DAVID CRONENBERG | Written by JOSH OLSON, based on the graphic novel by JOHN WAGNER and VINCE LOCKE | Produced by CHRIS BENDER and JC SPINK | Released by New Line Cinema | Opens September 23 at the Grove

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Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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