Take away all the gimmickry and hype surrounding Lars von Trier, the Danish provocateur behind the Dogme movement and such audacious works as Breaking The Waves and Dancer In The Dark, and he is, at his core, a peerless dramatist. Few other directors would risk career suicide by mounting a three-hour opus on a barely appointed stage, but the incendiary Dogville confirms the director’s sadistic knack for locating his characters’ (and his audience’s) soft spots and prodding them for a singular emotional experience. A wicked Bertolt Brecht-esque subversion of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Dogville shows how the democratic ideals of a tight-knit, God-fearing community are subject to the corrupting force of human nature.
Much has been written about how von Trier, who has never set foot on American soil, has no business leveling a sweeping critique of its principles. But tagging Dogville as strictly anti-American is missing the larger picture, because it’s pliant enough to accommodate several readings—as Christian allegory, as comment on the immigrant experience, or as one of von Trier’s pessimistic studies of female martyrdom. With chalk marks for houses and sound effects dubbed in for opening doors, the film looks like a bleak variation on The Sims, but the minimalist stage concept affords von Trier an abstract distance. This isn’t America; this is the idea of America, and a vast array of other ideas spins off from that.
Narrated with booming authority and dry wit by John Hurt, Dogville takes place in a Rocky Mountain mining community during the Depression, when hard times have made its citizens suspicious of outsiders. A fugitive on the run from gangsters, Nicole Kidman appeals for safe harbor and finds an enthusiastic sponsor in Paul Bettany, an idealistic writer who pleads successfully on her behalf. When Kidman offers her services to the townspeople—an ensemble that includes Stellan Skarsgård, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Jeremy Davies, and Chloë Sevigny—she discovers they’re all too willing to take advantage of her charity.
In a world without walls, von Trier lays bare the sins and hypocrisies behind the town’s wholesome veneer, corroding its soul like the rotten core of a polished fruit. To him, democracy is just another form of exploitation, veiled by a false egalitarian spirit: As an outsider, Kidman labors without any hope of eventually fitting in, exposing the myth that hard work leads to social advancement. But just when Dogville seems like a boldly political slant on running themes from Breaking The Waves and Dancer In The Dark, von Trier reverses field and ends with a stunning flourish. No one puts himself in the center of an argument like von Trier, and Dogville provides mountains of grist for fans and detractors alike.