Dogville

This is basically what you’d get if Thornton Wilder wrote Lord of the Flies, only with lots more raping. Dogville is a universal story of greed and malice, set in a small town in Colorado sometime in the first half of the last century. Director Lars Von Trier uses a single set—a large sound stage with an outline of the town’s buildings painted on the floor. Giant labels indicate whose house is whose, and a dog appears only as a painted silhouette. The abstraction works perfectly with the story, in which a young woman (Nicole Kidman), fleeing gangsters, is first taken in by the people of Dogville and then systematically indentured, enslaved, imprisoned and raped by them. Most of the actors are amazing, and the cast reads like a who’s who of neglected-but-talented performers: Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall and Lauren Bacall are all excellent as the citizens of Dogville. Kidman is weaker in the lead, and it was probably a mistake to cast her, but she’s not awful, and James Caan makes an interesting, if a bit cheesy, cameo. There are only two negatives to this otherwise intensely thoughtful and well-staged film: First, the voice-over narration that fills up a lot of time is not particularly well written, and it is poorly presented by John Hurt, who goes overly monotone in his reading. Second, and more damning, the film spends nearly three hours refusing to follow the formula of an American movie, and then in the last few minutes slavishly reverts to that formula. The ending is perhaps an extreme enough exaggeration of the American movie ending to draw it into question, but it’s also tremendously satisfying, and I mean that in a bad way: Up to that point, the movie was about not satisfying the urges of the audience, instead forcing them to think about those urges. On the whole, though, Dogville is a qualified success that really should be seen.

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