This film plays out like Thornton Wilder's Our Town - if Our Town were a monster waiting to explode upon itself with the wrath of God ! Lars Von Trier has assembled what is his greatest film yet (quite an achievement considering his past works; Breaking the Waves, Medea, Dancer in the Dark) and has placed upon the screen (for a breathtakingly seemingly short-lived three hours) the philosophical book of answers to the questions of human nature and the goodness of others.
Staged like the blueprints of a film come to life, Von Trier makes no denials of this being filmed entirely on a soundstage - in fact, he plays the polar opposite and relishes the hard footsteps upon the stage. Lines painted on the floor representing the homes and roads of the small Rocky Mountain mining town of Dogville are shown repeatedly from a bird's eye view. Even the name Elm Street is painted down the center of Elm Street. In each "home" are the block-lettered names of each ones inhabitants: CHUCK AND VERA, THOMAS EDISON'S HOUSE. The painted outline of a dog is also there, with simply the word DOG next to it. Only sparse pieces of furniture and a strategically placed bell tower decorate this Wilder-esque stage show. The rest is about the people.
Only a maverick such as Lars Von Trier would have the balls to attempt a film like this and only Von Trier would have the expertise to actually pull it off. Played out in nine chapters (and a prologue), Dogville is a sleepy former mining town situated at the end of a dead-end road, during the Great Depression. Nichole Kidman, in her most masterful performance yet, is (the not-so-subtly named) Grace. She wanders into the town in mystery (is she a fugitive, a runaway, a mobster's moll trying to escape ???) and is taken in by Tom Edison Jr. (down-played with a quirky nobility by Paul Bettany) who fancies himself the spokesman for this town of fifteen castaways (including Lauren Bacall, Stellen Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Blair Brown, Harriet Andersson and Philip Baker Hall). Eventually the town takes her in and hides her from whatever danger is following her in the night. As they celebrate The Fourth of July, the toewnspeople sing America the Beautiful ("God shed his Grace on thee"). This is when the story goes off it's sweet path and down the road to an inevitable painful conclusion. As the danger increases, so do the demands of it's citizens upon Grace. Soon, Grace is in a worse position than the one she may be running from. Humiliated and tortured, Grace becomes a slave to these same people who at first were sharing their Christian goodwill. The ending, a climactic tour de force of chutzpah, can not, and should not be missed.
Many critics blasted Dogville as anti-american rubbish (on the whole, European critics found it much more paletable, but that may be due to an Americanized Hollywood criticism here in the States). In reality Dogville may be an attack on humanity itself, no matter their nationality (Von Trier claims it's an angry satire on Denmark's anti-immigrant stance). Although we do hear a lot of talk of the American way throughout the town of Dogville (especially from Paul Bettany's Tom) and this may be a diatribe on America's pretentious claim to being the home of Democracy and Freedom (while we demolish the ways of life of other "weaker" nations). I suppose this may be seen as so reprehensible since it comes from a Director that has famously never tread upon US soil, but I think, on whole, Von Trier is being an equal opportunity muckraker. Then again, this may very well be a look at the duplicity and hypocrisy of a nation of so-called Christians and what we are capable of as a country as cocksure as America. The closing credits are run atop photos of the "lower classes" of society a la the Depression-era migrants and Ghetto life and are played to the tune of David Bowie's Young Americans.
In this critics's not-so-humble opinion, what we get is, not only Von Trier's best film ever, but a Masterpiece of societal anguish and epic archetypical despair. When the proverbial shit finally hits the proverbial fan and the never-before-seen-only-heard town dog, Moses, finally comes to life, Dogville is permanently attached to your consciousness, for better or for worse. [04/04/04]