Dogville (review)

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Our Town Redux

I don’t have a terribly impressive personal track record with Lars von Trier’s films — I haven’t seen all of them, but those I have seen have, at best, left me less than satisfied. So it was with limited expectations that I went in to Dogville… and expectations, at that, that were mostly along the lines that I was in for something half intriguing and half annoyingly experimental.
And sure enough, starts the film, and here’s a narrator (John Hurt: Hellboy, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) telling us stuff, which anyone will tell you is a sure sign of a story that can’t be told visually and so what is it doing on film — if we can’t see it, it ain’t filmic. And there’s more we can’t see: the set. There isn’t one, except of the barest kind that the little community theater group I used to work with would have been shamed into fleshing out a little. Everyone’s just walking around on a black box of a stage that’s meant to represent a small-town main street, and the outlines of houses and shops and paths and such are just drawn on the black floor, almost like white chalk on a blackboard, with big freakin’ labels stenciled into the middle of ’em: “Tom’s House,” “Elm Street,” and so on. The actors mime opening and closing doors, petting the dog Moses, and I’m like What. The. Hell.

So I hunker down with my arms crossed in that skeptical, I’m-gonna-hate-this way, ready to start rolling my eyes any minute now — oh, cuz I didn’t mention that the narration is full of all this down-home just-folks Americana crap about the shabby genteel poverty of these good people and this good town in the midst of the Great Depression, and the sentimentality of someone dubbing Elm Street such when this Rocky Mountain locale never heard of elm trees, and so on. Wasn’t Thornton Wilder all the Thornton Wilder we needed?

But damn if I didn’t completely forget to hate Dogville, and if I wasn’t, three hours later, completely blown out of my little mind and right into the screening room next door. All the Thornton Wilder stuff is there just so von Trier can dynamite it away, as if to say: You wanna see what our town is like? Here it is, in all its mean, petty, horrible smallness. It’s not particularly about American meanness or pettiness or smallness, though some have accused von Trier of being anti-American — it’s about human meanness, etc. The only thing “anti” about Dogville is that it might be called an anti-epic — an ambitious movie with a big cast and a marathon runtime that’s about how small and insular and selfish people can be, about the miserable depths to which human beings can sink in their cruelty to others. Nationality’s got nothing to do with it, though the ability to wield power over other human beings might, and so there might be some pertinent application to America as a whole right now. But everyone will — or should — recognize the universality of this, the worst side of humanity.

To say too much would be to spoil the whole mind-blowingness of the film, and yet the setup sounds an awful lot like exactly where I was afraid the film was going. Nicole Kidman (Cold Mountain, The Human Stain) blows into Dogville one fine day on the heels of gunshots in the valley, and we suspect her Grace — beautiful and well-dressed, particularly in comparison to the near rags the poor citizens of Dogville are wearing — is a moll on the run. Suspicious and wary, the townsfolk have to be cajoled into hiding her by Tom Edison (Paul Bettany: The Reckoning, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), who fancies himself the keeper of morality in the town. She’s sweet and kind and pretty, and the hardened Dogvillians soften and come to love her.

But the film’s only half over at that point. It’s what happens next that’s so… amazing. There’s plenty before that point that, in retrospect, you realize is perfect. Like Tom, a searing portrait of feeble impotence, daringly executed by Bettany (I’ve gone from bored indifference to his work in his early films to being riveted by him). Like the whole rest of the cast, the women all stark, bitter coldness — particularly Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Far from Heaven), and Chloë Sevigny (American Psycho) — who just barely thaw toward Grace before the claws come out again, and the men all ineffectual weaklings — particularly Stellan Skarsgård (Passion of Mind, Ronin), Zeljko Ivanek (Unfaithful, Hannibal), and Jeremy Davies (Solaris, Secretary) — who find a motivation to act only when their own weakness is no longer an issue.

It’s during the second half of the film that Kidman is so revelatory, and von Trier’s plan becomes clear: they’re creating a parable of cruelty on the one hand and suffering on the other that’s something like the film that Mel Gibson, perhaps, thought he was making, and when it’s over, you feel the need to watch it again right away, because how it ends changes everything. And the very aspects of the film that at first seemed to me to be artificial and unnecessarily distracting and would render the film thoroughly uninvolving — letting a narrator relate much of the tale, keeping the bare stage nearly bereft of sets or props — actually serves to blast away all the artifice of film and compress the barbarous horror of it down to a searing, elemental kernel of truth. It’s hard to imagine another film this year outdoing Dogville‘s bracing acridness or audacity.

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