Nicole Kidman as Grace
Paul Bettany as Tom Edisons
James Caan as The Big Man
Stellan Skarsgård as Chuck
Patricia Clarkson as Vera
Jeremy Davies as Bill Henson
Chloë Sevigny as Liz Henson
Philip Baker Hall as Tom Edison Sr.
Lauren Bacall as Ma Ginger
Ben Gazzara as Jack McKay
Siobhan Fallon as Martha
Blair Brown as Mrs. Henson
Harriet Andersson as Gloria
Shauna Shim as June
John Hurt as The Narrator
Jean-Marc Barr as The Man with the Big Hat
Set in the small Rocky Mountains town of the movie’s title, Dogville shows how the arrival of Grace, a beautiful fugitive from the mob, played by Nicole Kidman, affects the small isolated community. The town takes her in with caution, suggesting that she prove to them she is worth the risk they’re taking by protecting her. It doesn’t take long for the worm to turn and the town’s true intentions to come through, as they exploit and manipulate Grace, blackmailing her into maintaining their silence.
In 2001, Danish director Lars von Trier‘s film Dancer in the Dark got a lot of flak from critics for setting his film in America, a country he has never visited himself. Undaunted, he decided to challenge himself with a trilogy of films that looks at Americana, while deconstructing the mythos. Dogville is the first in the trilogy.
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:
Some people will probably not understand this movie. Few might even be able to say that they enjoyed it. That being said, it is a worthwhile experience to see how this innovative story comes together for the various characters. With top-notch performances all around, Dogville is another beautiful piece of filmmaking from one of the true geniuses of modern cinema. Hopefully, people will be able to look past any possible malicious intentions that von Trier may have had to be able to enjoy what is an intelligent, original and thought-provoking film on American small town life.
Dogville opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 26th, with an expansion throughout the reset of the country in April.