Laura Clifford Robin CliffordOne evening, Tom (Paul Bettany, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") hears shots fired in the distance. He listens and waits and finally finds an elegantly dressed young woman trying to climb the mountain that creates the conclusion of Tom's town. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is on the run from gangsters and Tom convinces her to hide in the town mine, saying he will take her case for being harbored to the good people of "Dogville."
Director/Writer Lars von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark") sure had something to say in his incendiary "Dogville" and he's said it unequivocally, with experimental style. While this film can be seen as the anti-"Our Town" on its surface, a global story of the inherent evil of humankind, those looking for political allegory will find a harsh indictment of the U.S. in this contemplation on 9/11. Those who thought the "September 11" omnibus was anti-American will be sucker-punched by "Dogville."
Tom, who has deemed himself the arbiter of the town's ideals and morals, gathers Dogville's citizens in the mission house and tells them of Grace's plight. Mrs. Henson (Blair Brown, "Space Cowboys") wants nothing to do with the situation and Tom's own father (Philip Baker Hall, "Bruce Almighty") questions her trustworthiness, but Tom convinces them to give the woman two weeks to prove herself. 'Dogville offered you two weeks, now you offer them!' Tom suggests to Grace. Everyone tells her there is nothing they need help with until Grace convinces the shopkeepers, Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) and Gloria (Harriet Andersson, "Fanny and Alexander") to let her do something they *don't* need done. Soon Grace has turned wild bushes into a gooseberry garden, freed up Vera's (Patricia Clarkson, "The Station Agent") time by sitting with her six children and brought blind Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara, "Hysterical Blindness") out of denial and into society. Dogville begins to give Grace a small wage as she works in Chuck's (Stellan Skarsgård, "The Glass House") apple orchard and assists Liz Henson (Chloë Sevigny, "Party Monster") with the family glass-grinding business. One by one, Grace is able to purchase the seven figurines in Ma Ginger's shop window. The town's acceptance of Grace comes to a crescendo during a 4th of July celebration, when Tom tells her he loves her amidst a swirl of dandelion fluff and birdsong.
When the Sheriff replaces Grace's Missing poster with a Wanted notice, accusing her of bank robbery, 'another of those little changes of light' hits Dogville and suspicions breed corruption. 'From a business perspective, you're costlier to the town' Tom tells Grace, who agrees to more hours of labor for less pay. Martha (Siobhan Fallon, "Holes") kindly offers to ring the Mission bell every half hour to keep Grace, who is now shuttling about Dogville like a demented Pavlov experiment in a rat's maze, on her schedule. Vera and Chuck's son Jason (Miles Purinton) provokes and betrays her. Ma Ginger scolds her for taking a shortcut through the gooseberry bushes. Mr. McKay's hand begins to wander. Chuck rationalizes rape. Even the slow-witted Ben (Zeljko Ivanek, "Unfaithful"), one of the first to be won over by Grace's kindness, takes advantage of her when she tries to escape. Bill Henson (Jeremy Davies, "Solaris"), whose grasp of engineering was aided immeasurably by Grace's tutoring, uses his newfound knowledge to fashion a collar restraint for her out of the dog Moses's collar and an old wheel. Tom's attempts to help Grace all end badly, and after agonizing over her sexual abuse at the hands of every man in Dogville, he asks to consummate their relationship. When he's spurned, Tom sees Grace as a reminder of all of his failings. He calls the number on the card that was given to him from the shady back seat of a Cadillac searching for Grace on the night of the gunshots.
Von Trier's story, which is divided into a prologue and nine chapters, appears simple on the surface, but in its elegant construction every action and exchange illuminates what will follow. Each of the town's people have an agenda (the seven deadly sins reflected in those Hummels?), but Tom is the most complex mix of passive aggression, man's self-serving ability to delude himself coated with a veneer of servitude. Bettany's very good in the role, as is Kidman as his opposite. Grace is truly an open book, allowing everyone to see exactly what she has to offer, giving freely. She's a von Trier woman. (It is unfortunate that Kidman is not continuing in "Manderlay," the second of the planned trilogy. Bryce Howard, director Ron's daughter, is assuming the role of Grace.)
There are several standouts in the large ensemble. Ben Gazzara delivers his verbal recollections of visuals so poetically, that his baser instincts seem like a personal affront. Bacall is terrific backtracking her way out of a corner, becoming exasperated with her own pettiness being revealed. James Caan plays the heavy with a deft lightness, defining Grace's 'arrogance' before observing its destruction with something like regret. John Hurt acts as this production's 'stage manager,' albeit unseen. He reads a very literary narration that acts as a bridge between the film's segments as if he were relaying a fable, the slightest tinge of judgement in his soothing voice.
Much has been made of "Dogville's" production, a stage set with 'buildings' chalked onto the floor and minimal props. In the film's first scene, Tom visits everyone before stopping to play checkers with the 'none too bright' Bill and the checkerboard seems like a cheeky metaphor for their surroundings. Even Moses, the dog which barks on Grace's arrival, is just a drawing fleshed out with sound effects (he does appear in the film's final shot, a symbol of the town). The device, which one quickly becomes accustomed to, has its benefits, such as heightening the impact of Grace's first rape behind closed, invisible doors - the heinous act is viewed as everyone in Dogville goes about their business around it. Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle ("28 Days Later"), shooting in high definition vide, achieves a rich, vibrant look with deep velvety blacks. Some early hand held work is unnecessarily jittery, but the overall effect is like being inside of an avant garde stage play. The film's signature still, of Grace surrounded by apples in Ben's truckbed, is stunning, revealed in the film beneath a dissolving tarp. Molly Marlene Stensgård's ("Dancer in the Dark") editing is essential to "Dogville's" unsettling rhythm. Von Trier sparingly uses a piece of Vivaldi's sacred music before ending with the blast of Bowie's "Young Americans," which accompanies Depression era portraits for the closing credits.
There is one mystery to von Trier's meaning. 'Dogs can be taught many things, but not if you forgive them every time they act on their own nature' Grace is told, and we're given every indication she has taken the advice to heart. Yet her last words save Moses. 'Let him be. He's just angry because someone's taken his bone.'
Robin did not see this film.
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