Dogville starts off innocently as a tribute to idyllic small town life, but halfway through, the town “bares its teeth”, turning the film into a dark cross between a Shakespeare drama and an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. It’s “Our Town” as told by Hubert Selby Jr. (author of controversial novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream). At that point, the film becomes hard to watch as indignities are heaped upon Grace that might make some viewers cringe thanks to von Trier’s nature of never allowing the camera to flinch.
Essentially, Dogville is another difficult film from von Trier, mainly due to its thinly veiled subtext that Grace’s character is an analogy for immigrants coming to America looking for success, working ridiculous hours for low wages, and then leaving disgruntled with the American experience. This could be seen as Von Trier’s simplified explanation for anti-American sentiments and terrorism, something that might ruffle feathers, which might explain why the movie hasn’t been released in the States for years after its completion. Once you get past this, it’s easier to enjoy Dogville for what it is: a beautifully written, filmed and acted movie.
Dogville looks immediately different from von Trier’s previous films, looking more like a grand stage play. The town itself is constructed inside a cavernous soundstage with buildings and trees represented by line drawings on the ground with a description in block letters. The minimalist set is a bit disconcerting at first, especially when characters knock on doors that aren’t there, but the set is used in an inventive way to insure that the town remains the central character without getting in the way of the performances. The real cars driven through the set also heighten the surreal nature of this town. von Trier uses his normal handheld camera techniques to get up close and personal to the actors, but the town is often captured using beautiful high aerial shots, giving it a more “big budget” look than the usual von Trier oeuvre.
Many of von Trier’s films have revolved around damsels in distress-Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Bjork’s Selma in Dancer in the Dark. In Nicole Kidman, he might have found his perfect “heroine”, and once again, Kidman displays why she is one of the most respected actresses in the world, giving a robust performance as a complicated character, equally victim and instigator. While in Cold Mountain, the harsh conditions had little effect on Kidman’s perfect hair and make-up, Grace’s downwards spiral is seen both physically and emotionally; it is heart wrenching.
An impressive supporting cast reinforces Kidman’s talent, allowing for riveting character dynamics. Paul Bettany (Master and Commander) holds his own as the aptly named Thomas Edison, the town’s optimistic philosopher and idealist, who quickly falls for Grace. The transition of their relationship as their romance is stretched thin by the town’s prejudices lies at the very center of the story. von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard gives another subdued but effective performance as Chuck, the disparaging catalyst for the pleasant town’s change in mood. In smaller roles are Lauren Bacall as the salty shop owner, and Patricia Clarkson, once again stealing the scene in one of the movie’s most heart wrenching scenes.
The movie is entirely driven by the dialogue and the beautifully witty and descriptive narrative, read by John Hurt. Considering that English is von Trier’s second language, the script is impressive, showing that he has a way with words harking back to the works of some of America’s greatest playwrights.
Dogville‘s greatest fault is its length and how long it takes to get to some of the more interesting plot developments. At first, the running time seems like another test for the viewer, but the final twist leads to one of the most deliciously evil endings that not only makes the three-hour ride worthwhile, but it drives home why some of the earlier events are so important. A darkly comical and memorable scene between Kidman and James Caan is the pivotal climax to the movie.
The Bottom Line:
Dogville opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 26th, with an expansion throughout the reset of the country in April.