A film review by Craig J. Koban


2003 (International release)

2004 (North American release)

R, 177 mins.

Grace: Nicole Kidman / Tom Edison: Paul Bettany / The Big Man: James Caan / Vera: Patricia Clarkson / Bill Henson: Jeremy Davies / Jack McKay: Ben Gazzara / Tom Edison Sr.: Philip Baker Hall / Narrator: John Hurt / Liz Henson: Chloe Sevigny / Chuck: Stellan Skarsgard / Ma Ginger: Lauren Bacall / Mrs. Henson: Blair Brown

Written and directed by Lars von Trier

I have never had so many conflicting emotions as I did after viewing  Lars Von Trier’s new controversial political allegory DOGVILLE.  When the final credits rolled by and vile, dirty, seedy, and sad images from Depression-era America are splattered across the screen with David Bowie’s YOUNG AMERICANS blaring out as an anthem in the background, it's pretty obvious and clear the message that Trier was going for: that the US (and maybe other industrialized nations) is chiefly characterized as a brutal, unflinching, and uncaring place where untold and unjust abuses take place all the time.  After the final images went by and the screen faded to black, it dawned on me that this just may be one of the best films I have ever seen…or one of the worst.  

There is no denying the artistic skills and pointed themes that von Trier tackles here.  He is a filmmaker with a unique vision and pioneers that with an avant-garde visual style that takes minimalism to a whole new level.  His film also challenges us to really dig deep into its issues and deconstruct them for some sort of meaningful discussion. 

Yet, the film is also ridiculously self-indulgent, self-important, arrogant, naďve, ignorant, non-objective, inanely pretentious, and, lets face it, overly long.  It's also tainted by an uncontested fact – von Trier, to his very own admission as a Danish man who fears airplanes, has never been to the United States, thus, his hate-filled expose of the country can also be seen as both personal and highly suspect.  Yet, I am not sure if the latter point should demean the film altogether.  DOGVILLE is ingeniously developed, wonderfully acted, and incredible passionate with its subject matter.  Its by the film's very narrow-mindedness and abrasiveness that made me turn off to it.   Nevertheless, DOGVILLE is both brilliant and nauseating. 

The very style that von Trier exhibits here is clearly reflective in what a daring and provocative artist he really is.  He is a filmmaker that not only takes modern filmmaking conventions and turns them upside down, but he drops then on their heads repeatedly to make a point.  DOGVILLE is not just minimalist…it’s absolutely skeletal.   What’s so daring and magnificent is the film’s production design, or complete lack there off.  Von Trier sets his fable in a Rocky Mountain town named Dogville, apparently during the Great Depression (the period is never pointed out to us, but its fairly obvious).  What’s kind of insane, yet inspiring, is that Trier not only does not use any buildings for his set, but he uses no doors, walls (well, a few here and there), hell…even pets are there in voice but not in physical form.  

The opening shot (brilliant in design and execution) looks straight down on the town from a hundred feet up and reveals to us just how simplistic von Trier’s art direction is.  Every building, house, and shed is marked only with chalk outlines representing their individual boundaries.  There is only marginal use of props, like desks, chairs, beds, and (strangely) cars.  When characters enter a house, they knock at thin air (with the foley artists providing the sound effects) and mime opening and closing the doors.  Since there are no walls, we see “inside” the homes and into the lives of all that occupy it, even as the story often unfolds outside.  The floor is solid, but the sound effects often used in conjunction with the footsteps reveal seasonal changes.  The surrounding background is just a void – black for nighttime, white for daytime. 

DOGVILLE takes bare-bones to a whole new absurd level, but there’s no denying the overwhelming power and importance of von Trier’s style here.  The lack of art direction allows us to focus on the characters and actors.  This is a human drama, and by stripping the entire minutia away, von Trier is able to concentrate our attentions in the right way.  After a few minutes or so, when we see characters mime either closing doors or gardening, it never becomes distracting.    

DOGVILLE begins very simply.  We are introduced to the small Depression town (and when I say small I mean it; the town only seems to have 15 inhabitants, along with some children and a non-existent dog, which is shown as a chalk outline).  A mysterious and beautiful young woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) makes her way into town one night, being pursued by vicious gangsters.  She is spotted in town by the young and intelligent Tom Edison (the very effective Paul Bettany).  He seems instantly infatuated with her, and thus proceeds to act as her rescuer, so to speak.  He brings her before the town council and tries to convince them to allow her to become a member of the community.  The town members are highly skeptical, clearly feeling that they do not have a lot of trust in this strange young woman.  So, as a test, the council gives Grace two weeks to prove her worth, trustworthiness and abilities to be a good citizen.   

Grace proceeds over the next two weeks to allow her services to any towns person she meets up with, and is willing to do anything they ask of her.  First, they seem appreciative, despite the fact that, initially, they have no real work for her.  Yet, through time, the people capitulate and allow Grace to work alongside them in all chores both physically and mentally straining.  In order for Grace to stay, she must have unanimous approval of all 15 major townsfolk, so appeasing them all is her ultimate goal.  She sets out to win over people like the ill-tempered Ma Ginger (the great Lauren Bacall), a blind man who stays indoors all the time named Jack (Ben Gazarra), the very unsettled and depressed Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) and his very volatile and mentally high strung wife Vera (Patricia Clarkson).  Needless to say, Grace finally finds overwhelming acceptance after the first two weeks and the citizens willfully accept her as a new member of their sparse little family. 

The following months in Dogville are “happy times” (as the title card tells us).  People are productive, Grace finds her stride and begins to show an easy-going spirit with her newfound friends, and the overall atmosphere is positive.  Things, unfortunately, spiral down completely out of control.  An initial first visit by a police officer who posts a missing person banner at the town featuring Grace does not illicit much apprehension, but it does raise the citizen's  suspicions to a degree.  The police later show up again, unannounced, but this time they have a new banner, which features Grace and a huge reward for her capture.  Apparently, she is wanted in connection for a serious of huge bank robberies.  This is a major turning point for the people of the town, who now see their once innocent new friend as a fugitive from the law and justice.  Realizing their unique predicament, the townspeople use Grace and her newly discovered status in a gross and disgusting effort to exploit her in any way they see fit.

It is here where Trier’s highly debatable disgust for Western culture reaches a fever point.  The once kind, carefree, and simple-minded citizens are turned into something more ghastly and terrible.  They slowly become xenophobic, vindictive, jealous, violent, suspicious, double-crossing, and morally corrupt.  Some of the citizens even become capable of murder and rape, as Grace is disturbingly used by all the town’s men (except Edison) as a sex slave to channel all of their unleashed sexual urges and fantasies.  Grace is physically and morally brutalized, being sexually violated repeatedly, worked like a slave, and at one point, even chained with an iron collar to a heavy tire as to ensure that she does not escape.  When one member of the town calls upon the mobsters that were looking for Grace at the beginning of the film, they return with the mafia don (James Caan) and a big secret is revealed.  Let’s just say that Grace, in a final moment of revelation and eerie and disturbing violence, finds retribution for her disgusting treatment at the hands of the people of Dogville. 

For starters, DOGVILLE is an actor's dream film, a three-hour odyssey that is chiefly driven by the performances, and von Trier here gets great work from nearly all of the performers.  Nicole Kidman, once again, is really starting to solidify herself as one of the best of contemporary actors.  Her performance as Grace is both brave and thankless, and she has the most difficult challenge out of any of the other actors.  She has to play the character with the right balance of naivety and suspicion, and she pulls it all off wonderfully.  Paul Bettany is also fantastic as Edison, the earnest intellectual who is smart and bold.  He is not afraid to challenge his fellow townspeople, especially on matters that he may very well know will get him into trouble.  Bettany plays the role with poise and civility.  I especially liked the work of Skarsgard, who buries himself deep into his role of a man that has troubled thoughts that manifests into something even more sinister. 

So, ultimately, where does DOGVILLE stand?  Yes, the film is an unflinching and unapologetic attack on American morality.  It also is very pompous and one-sided.  Surly, the film cannot possibly represent a global perspective on the nature of the American morality machine.   Von Trier here goes for the jugular and tackles issues that most modern directors would clearly shy away from without provocation.    On a complex and fascinating level, one could look at DOGVILLE as an introspective look at how the oppressed becomes, through a series of incidents, the oppressors.  The townspeople, at the beginning of the film, are chiefly the marginalized in American society, impoverished and needy.  By the film’s end they commit acts so heinous that to label them as oppressors seems overly sensitive. 

The film also does make some valid points about modern America society in the sense that it fears outsiders, those that are radically different, and that they often confront these inconsistencies violently.  This is a broad, large theme, but I think that von Trier stretches it out to ridiculous limits.  If he didn’t put those silly images and song on the end credits and was not so specific as to locale and time, his film might have taken on a more universal commentary on the human condition.  Instead, his film is a strong and self-indulgent pointed attack.  Yes, there are moral problems in America, but I am not sure of how many women were chained by their necks and raped repeatedly on a daily basis.  America is partially corrupt, no doubt, but DOGVILLE seems to take great pains to say that its depravity is seemingly universal across its lands.  That message is narrowly defined, ignorant, and not fairly  representational. 

DOGVILLE, despite its problems, is a strong and powerful film, and it glides through its three-hour timeframe and paints an uncompromising portrait of a director’s uncensored feelings on a dilapidated society.  The performances are strong, the art direction ingeniously limiting, and the narrative is well realized.  People will come out loving this film or hating it all the same.  Sure, some will revel in how the film is an unjust representation of American society.  I guess there is merit to that take, but then again, how often are films accurate portrayals of society?  The film is smart, forthright and memorable in allowing for the performances to shine throughout the proceedings.  Maybe if DOGVILLE lost some of its petty indulgences and felt less self-important and bloated, then perhaps its would have achieved a level of greatness.  It’s a film for those that have patience, but not for those who get frustrated too easily by the tunnel vision of its author.

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