Lar von Trier's Dogville is an ambitious motion picture. It is also contrived, self-indulgent, fatally overlong, and ultimately downright repulsive. Dogville tells the story of what happens when Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the run from gangsters, stumbles upon the small Rocky Mountain town of Dogville. She first encounters Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the town's resident big thinker, who manages to convince the townspeople to offer Grace refuge, but in exchange they demand that she visit everyone in town once a day to help out with whatever chores they need help with.
The townspeople consist of a number of ominous personalities: the gooseberry bush-protecting Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), the blind old man Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), the dumb wannabe engineer Bill Henson (Jeremy Davies) and his sister Liz (Chloe Sevigney), the apple picker Chuck (Stellan Skarsgaard) and his wife Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and their many children, the silent Martha (Siobhan Fallon), the professional freight carrier Ben (Zeljko Ivanek), and Tom's dad Tom Edison, Sr. (Philip Baker Hall)
At first, the townspeople seem shy and unwilling to accept Grace, but she does her best to accommodate them in the hopes that they will let her stay in town and avoid her troubles elsewhere. However, once the people of Dogville get to know Grace better, they treat her with unflinching cruelty and coldness - she is raped on numerous occasions by numerous people, as one example. Tom does his best to help Grace deal with everything - he's falling in love with her, and she with him - but there's only so much one man can do when he's trying to be accepted by both sides.
So, let me talk first about what I liked about the movie. The entire film is shot on a single stage, which represents the town of Dogville. Walls and props are few and far between, as the buildings are identified by outlines and text painted on the stage. It gives the film the feel of live theater, but with the freedom of film cuts and edits. Von Trier uses a handheld camera throughout, as he does in most his films. Because there are no distractions by way of setpieces, the actors are given the opportunity to shine, and shine they do. The only acting quirk that really bothered me was that Paul Bettany, who is British, could not seem to settle on one single American accent - he couldn't decide whether he was from the North or the South, East or West, or the ambiguous area in between all of these we call the Midwest.
Now, what was bad: the plot and the characters. Grace and Tom are two of the dumbest movie characters who make some of the worst decisions I have ever seen. Dumb movie characters are okay, but not when they're passed off as intelligent. Grace hangs around this town and takes abuse from these small-town folk for no reason. She doesn't tell anyone except Tom about any of it, and he's even worse than her. He's supposed to be this man with all of these great ideas, except all of his ideas are absolutely terrible. There isn't a single character you can even relate to in the entire movie - they're all inexplicably despicable.
And did I mention that Dogville takes three hours to tell a story so simple it could be told in about fifteen minutes worth of film? Plus, there is an overbearing narrator (John Hurt) who explains every last detail, instead of allowing the actors to express the emotions of the characters and allowing the audience to interpret those emotions. There is nothing wrong with making ambitious films, but if an ambitious film fails, it makes it ten times worse than when a formula film fails, because there is so much unfulfilled promise. In my book, Dogville is a grand, spectacular failure.
February 26, 2005