A review of “Dogville” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: R for nudity and adult situations.

Run Time: 2 hours, 57 minutes

 

 

It’s being hailed as pretentious, audacious, and anti-American.  Bold, misogynistic, and thoroughly original.  Dogville is all of these things, not to mention utterly brilliant.

Director Lars von Trier’s career is a testament to risk-taking.  From Breaking the Waves to Dancer in the Dark, von Trier knows how to plumb the moral depths and emerge with dark pearls of wisdom. 

Set on a single soundstage replete with minimal furnishings, Dogville is a claustrophobic ode to small-town living.  The “town” is marked off by chalked lines that delineate homes, landscape and accoutrements. 

At the core of this Depression-era Rocky Mountain mining community is Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a radical thinker and unofficial town leader. Life hasn’t rained gifts on his township – its struggles are evident. Tom regularly gathers his fifteen townsfolk for meetings on moral rearmament, which serve to entertain and dictate social status.

As Tom is taking his customary late-night stroll through town, he comes upon a frightened woman attempting to escape an unseen pursuer.  Her name is Grace (Nicole Kidman) and she appears to be fleeing from a violent unpleasantness in a nearby town.  Tom offers to harbor Grace in the safety of Dogville. 

This being a democracy, the town votes as a majority and Grace takes up tentative residence. But the willowy beauty has her work cut out for her.  In order to allay fears that her pursuers will stoke their vengeance on the vulnerable residents, Grace sets out to do odd jobs for each family.  Initially they deny the need, but it seems that every last one of them has something to keep the girl busy.

Time wears on and the tide turns.  A local sheriff posts a reward for Grace’s return, and the townspeople subtly close ranks, working her to the bone and turning their backs when she needs their support the most. They demand a New Deal in exchange for protecting the girl, a better return on their initial investment. Romantic trysts, vicious gossip, sexual abuse and bitter betrayal expose the true nature of the individuals and the group as a sinister entity.

Kidman and her supporting players are a revelation in this tense and stagy affair.  Bettany is superb; smug, slightly egocentric, and torn between his burgeoning love for Grace and his natural nature to distrust.  Patricia Clarkson, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara and Stellan Skarsgard, among others, are thespian dreams, infusing their characters with a grace born of fear and familiarity. Whip-smart narration by John Hurt alternately soothes and rankles.

A shady piece of provocation, perhaps, but Dogville shocks, galvanizes, and exhilarates.