An unapologetically despairing view of human behavior presented by Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark).
The tiny town of Dogville, nestled somewhere in the Depression-era Rocky Mountains, lies still and placid as a frozen lake the night Grace (Nicole Kidman), barefoot and frightened, makes her way into town. The village's young, philosophizing aesthete Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), already preoccupied with revealing the townspeople's true hearts through some kind of moral experiment, happens upon the lovely, forlorn Grace and takes it upon himself to rescue her from the gunshots and the smooth black cars that entered Dogville shortly after her arrival. A bargain is struck between Tom and the townspeople: Grace may have two weeks to ingratiate herself to the townsfolk in return for their harboring her and holding their tongues when people come looking for her. If, at the end of two weeks, they still find themselves too endangered by Grace, they may cast her out of town. They, of course, do not cast her out as she soon makes herself indispensible by serving each and every one of them. Time passes and all seems to be going fairly well until ''Wanted'' posters with her face on them go up in the local store, and the stakes go up. In return for ''safety,'' Grace is made a slave/prisoner of the town, complete with collar, chain and all, suffering every indignity von Trier can dream up for her. Eventually the smooth black cars return with surprising consequences for both Grace and the town of Dogville.
Nicole Kidman has been quietly suffering in films for quite some time now. It's hard to believe that nine years ago she played a very devious, very predatory TV weather girl (is there any other kind?) in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. With barely a break since then she has starred in a string of roles in which she is invariably abused to the point of breaking down and sobbing until her big blue eyes turn pink. This keeps happening, strangely enough, because Kidman is just so bloody good at being the terror-stricken victim, so it comes as no surprise at all when Kidman submits to the townspeople's every whim. That's what we expect of the poor lass. That's what she does in movies. However, this expectation is turned wonderfully on its ear in the final moments of the film when all notions of Kidman the shallow-breathing, wide-eyed victim are replaced by an altogether different character. Paul Bettany is also terrific as Tom, the character von Trier has referred to as his Dogville stand-in. Tom is an artist so caught up in his own imagining of the great art he will create and his lofty desires for a better world that he fails to actually do anything to help poor Grace. As particularly cruel villagers, Patricia Clarkson as Vera and von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård as Vera's husband Chuck stand out, while Chloë Sevigny just sticks out like a sore thumb as Liz.
Von Trier was heavily lauded in Europe for this film, which has been seen as anti-American by some who saw it, in the wake of U.S. action in Iraq, as a critique of America as a hypocritically moralistic attack dog out to rid the world of evil fostered by its own hand. Although von Trier has never actually been to the U.S., this is the first in his planned trilogy of films set within its borders (the second film will take place in the 1930s in a town where slavery is still prevalent) and this does seem to suggest von Trier holds a special dark place in his heart for America. But the director is making a much more general statement about humankind and the corrupting influence of power, and simply using the U.S., the most powerful country in the world, as the setting. (In fact, von Trier has pointed out that many in his home country of Denmark consider him anti-Danish for his rather cruel depiction of Danes in Breaking the Waves, a pretty fair retort against critics who decried Dogville's perspective.) Dogville is clearly an allegory about power that corrupts huge governments and small-town people alike, and to further emphasize the film's symbolic nature von Trier puts the characters against a highly artificial backdrop--basically a stark soundstage set surrounded on all sides by nothingness; houses denoted by simple white lines, each labeled according to its inhabitant, can hardly be taken as a real Colorado town (even the town dog is represented only by a white chalk outline). The staginess of the set and the somewhat stilted nature of the narrative--the film is broken into chapters and is narrated in storybook fashion by John Hurt--add to the sense that Dogville is not so much a place in America, as it is the basis of a discussion of vice and virtue carefully brushed onto the canvas of an average American town. Only the closing credit sequence in which David Bowie's ''Young Americans'' plays over iconic images of destitute Depression-era Americans does von Trier's reach seem to exceed his grasp, resorting to shock to emphasize the moral of his fiction. Using these photos as a sort of punch line seems in poor taste and lacks the controlled clarity of the film that precedes them.
Certainly there is something almost childish about von Trier's handheld, seasick shots and the bravura of filming on what is obviously a soundstage, but for all this, von Trier's Dogville really is the piece of art he seems to think it is. Once you're into the story, invested in Grace's plight, he pulls you right along until, at the end, you are left a shaken, disturbed, and, yes, entertained.