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Posted by Aaron West, 4/18/04

Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Chloe Sevigny, John Hurt, Patricia Clarkson
Running Time: 177 minutes

Dogville is the first of a planned American trilogy by acclaimed writer/director Lars von Trier. Anyone who has seen Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, knows that Von Trier films can be divisive, difficult to watch, but painfully enjoyable. His female protagonists usually have a, umm, well, a tough time of things, to put it mildly. Dogville is no different, but it is unlike anything he's ever made before.

Before I delve too far, let me first tackle its nature. Dogville has been accused of having an anti-American message and rightfully so. Make no mistake about it -- this film is anti-American. In case anyone misses the "message", Von Trier goes so far as playing David Bowie's Young Americans, while displaying images of suffering Americans during the ending credits. We got it, Lars. Thanks. If this will offend you, then don't see it.

Von Trier has also been criticized for making a picture critical of America without actually having set foot in the country. He has defended himself by pointing out that Americans have done the same thing many times before, and he even accurately cites Casablanca. Dogville is Von Trier's view of the country from the outside, and it isn't very flattering.

Dogville is the story of a young, attractive woman named Grace. She has run away from the Mafia for whatever reason and turned up in a small Colorado town by the name of Dogville. She finds unlikely refuge in the Thornton Wilderish town and decides to help the town by performing tasks that aren't needed by anyone, yet enjoyed by everyone. She turns out to be exactly what the town needs, Dogville welcomes her with open arms and happy times are had by all.

Well, not quite. The town of Dogville bares its teeth once they discover the severe consequences of harboring a fugitive. They decide that Grace's errands don't quite compensate the town's generosity. Their demands on her schedule increase, her compensation decreases, and they find many ways to take advantage of her. All of this is justified because of the tremendous risk they have to bear. Consequently, Grace's performance suffers and the town begins to resent her.

Does it sound cynical? You have no idea.

The entire picture takes place on a simple set without even the illusion of a location. This, along with Von Trier's shaky camerawork, takes some time to get used to, but is effective in creating the nostalgic American small town feel, straight from legend to screen. There are no doors, no walls, no trees, no gooseberry bushes, only simple props and chalk outlines. If anything, the set resembles a simulation video game (ever play The Sims?) rather than a real town.

The acting in this film is spectacular, even for a Von Trier film. Nicole Kidman gives her strongest performance yet, and finally proves (to me, at least) that she doesn't need a plastic appendage in order to get results. The real star here, however, is Paul Bettany, whose Thomas Edison, Jr. embodies the pseudo-intellectual hypocrisy that is so central to the theme. At times he comes across as the most reasonable character, and he's quite easy to like. At other times, he seems the cruelest of them all, because he uses reason and rhetoric to justify his actions, and his appearance is pure benevolence. Dangerous indeed.

The rest of the ensemble is just as outstanding. Stellan Skarsgard, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, the narration of John Hurt -- all fantastic. There are no poor performances here.

I was initially concerned with the running time. Three hours is a long time to remain sitting, much less attentive and entertained. Von Trier has no hobbits or budget-busting CGI, but manages to make the time pass swiftly nonetheless. He tells us at the beginning that there are 9 chapters and a prologue. Knowing the overall position of the story makes the long running time easier to endure. The clever dialog and unusual character drama does the rest. To me the film seemed like 90 minutes on the brain, but 180 minutes on the butt.

Plenty can be written about the thematic elements of Dogville, and I'm quite sure plenty will. There are already some fascinating internet rumors floating around as to the true nature of the plot (God, Jesus, and the last supper, oh my!). This is a film to be discussed in coffee houses, on message boards, in classrooms even. The film is a hodgepodge of symbolism and metaphor that will reveal itself more on repeated viewings, late-night discussion and relentless scrutiny.

A lot is made of "arrogance" in the movie, and the word is used quite often. Thematically Dogville is about a great deal more, about the hypocrisy of humanity, about the ability to convince ourselves that deplorable actions are "acceptable" provided they are for the greater good. Von Trier seems to be condemning humanity (okay, America), by saying that we justify reprehensible actions simply because we want to, and we are able to turn a blind eye towards the misery of those who are morally, economically, or otherwise inferior. This is the arrogance that he is referring to, and in Dogville, he is the judge, jury and executioner.

Lars von Trier has again made a painfully beautiful picture. Regardless of how anyone feels about Von Trier's message, he is unquestionably a remarkable writer and director. Dogville isn't the masterpiece that Breaking the Waves was, but it is definitely a stirring and rousing film, that will inspire plenty of thought from anyone who holds their bladder for three hours, American or not.

Score: 9/10