In the Old West -- anyway in the old westerns--morality and mechanics went gun-in-hand. Any showdown ended with the good guy proving his superiority over the bad guy via a double blast of dexterity and firepower. Few questioned why the better man should automatically be a faster, more accurate shot or why disputes had to be resolved by gunplay. That was just the way that, in national and movie mythology, the West was won.
Today, when the western reposes in the Boot Hill of movie genres, and the acquisition of the West can be seen as a century-long act of aggression, serious films are more likely to question gun love than to celebrate it. In Aric Avelino's American Gun, a film shown at the Toronto Film Festival last week, the gun is seen as a virtual urban plague that ends young lives, sunders families and turns schools into maximum-security prisons. Andrew Niccol's Lord of War imagines that a Ukrainian-American named Yuri (Nicolas Cage) could rise through the arms-dealing underworld, Scarface-style, spreading the virulence around the globe. There's "one firearm for every 12 people on the planet," Yuri says. "The only question is, How do we arm the other 11?"
American gun love has long preoccupied and puzzled foreigners. So it's appropriate that an all-fired-up allegory on the subject, Dear Wendy, should come from perennial bad boy Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves), who wrote the film, and his protégé Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), who directed. Set in a nameless U.S. town, the movie is framed as a letter written by a pensive idealist named Dick (Jamie Bell) to the love of his life--a handgun. Dick, who abhors violence but is fascinated by the workings and personalities of firearms, has gathered a few like-minded loners into a group of "pacifists with guns." This heavy-artillery youth club, situated in a mine shaft, has all manner of arcane rules, including that the weapons must never be fired outside the club. That'll change.
Von Trier has a tendency to go overboard in his denunciations of American violence (Dogville). By contrast, Dear Wendy is a cogent, comprehensive take on the land and the films that obsess him. In his upended western plot, these nice kids are inventing villains, reacting to outside threats that don't exist. By the end, the political implications are clear: the U.S. sees itself as the lonesome marshal--Gary Cooper in High Noon--when in fact it possesses the world's biggest arsenal and is making more trouble than it's preventing. Or not. But you needn't agree with this dour vision to find Dear Wendy a potent fable about America's history of violence.