Year of Release: 2004 Directed by Lars von Trier. Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgård, Lauren Bacall, and John Hurt.
(There may be some spoilers; I need to discuss aspects of the second and third acts of this film.)
Deeply disturbing, graphically sexual and violent, and thoroughly unpleasant are all apt descriptions of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. However, despite the brutal nature of the content, the film does not merely wish to shock or offend the viewer. It offers much food for thought and arrives at a somewhat moral conclusion, even if it gnaws at one’s conscience in the process.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a helpless young woman running from a group of gangsters. She arrives in Dogville, a small depression era town of fifteen members located in the Rockies. Although the town is reluctant to offer her shelter from the gangsters, the local philosopher/writer Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) persuades the members to give Grace two weeks to prove that she is not a threat and that she can help the town.
Grace insists that she has nothing to offer the town, but Tom thinks differently. At the end of the two weeks, the townspeople decide to let her stay, not because they pity her or wish to extend hospitality and charity to her, but because they find her useful. When the police begin inquiring after Grace, the inhabitants maker her more useful. She helps with the schooling of one family’s children, cleans up at the local shop, and works in the orchard with the farmer. And as the only young woman in the town tells Grace with relief, Grace has diverted all the men’s attention onto herself, which the young woman finds a welcome relief.
All the men’s attention includes that of a twelve-year-old boy and a blind elderly man. And all the men take advantage of her in ways ranging from aggressive flirtation to fondling to rape. The only man who does not sexually assault Grace is Tom. However, he mistreats her as well. Tom never cared about Grace as a person. Her presence suited his philosophical theory that Dogville was unwelcoming to strangers, and he wanted to use her to prove his point, which the characters demonstrate in spades. When Grace shows Tom errors in his theory, his consequent actions are as deplorable as the rest of the town.
Dogville is too generous a name for the town to describe the townspeople. I like dogs; it is demeaning to them to compare the actions of the characters to dogs. Sodomville or Gomorrahville would be a much more fitting name for the town.
I do not think that Dogville’s portrayal of greed and animosity is supposed to be representative of the nature of America, as many critics have claimed. The montage with the final credits is insulting, but it could just as easily be any other country. The film’s tagline is “A quiet little town not far from here,” suggesting that the level of brutality displayed by the inhabitants of Dogville is the common nature of all of mankind. That is much more problematic than any slight anti-Americanism. At the end of the film, Grace is given two choices: surrender her goodness and kindness to her brutal, mafia boss father; or surrender her goodness and kindness to despair and consequentialist denial as she is repeatedly abused by the townspeople.
There is no third option. Either one brings an Old-Testament like vengeance to one’s transgressors, or one adopts moral relativism, pretending that sin is no big deal and should be overlooked in favor of any miniscule goodness. The film explores no option of repentance, forgiveness, or just punishment for crimes. In Dogville, justice cannot be tempered with mercy, and is therefore not just. The godlike figure, with the power to enact a final reckoning if he chooses, is a brutal gangster, representing a savage, unmerciful god.
Another problem is that the behavior of the town inhabitants is so repulsive that any viewer drawn into the film will be rooting for their demise in a very un-Christian manner. When the gangsters return with their machine guns at the film’s end, the first thought to cross one’s mind is: finally, these brutes are going to be held accountable for their crimes. The only problem is that this sort of reckoning is as sadistic as the townspeople’s actions. To be fair, this sort of brutal reckoning is depicted to be horrible and as repulsive as the abuse Grace suffered, but accepting abuse or returning it in equal are disturbing alternatives. What happened to Grace’s earlier wish to leave the town and the gangsters behind?
It is no coincidence that Kidman’s character is named Grace. Throughout the film she does personify grace to a grievously sinful world. It is tragic when she is forced by dramatic necessity to abandon that grace, and the film does not deny this tragedy. What the film does do is say that this tragic loss of grace is inevitable.
Von Trier structured the film nearly perfectly. The set design is a black stage with minimalistic sets and lighting. White chalk lines serve as borders and most of the props, which the viewer has to imagine as if he were watching a stage production. This design also creates closeness among all the characters and their actions. Sin and its consequences affects everyone; when one character commits an offense it remains visible to the viewer even if the camera is focused on another area of the set. Therefore, the consequences are dramatically justified, even if they are not morally justified. Those consequences are poetic in nature, and skillfully foreshadowed. Despite the artistic excellence and very accurate representation of sin, the pervasive hopelessness will make all except the most discerning viewers wish to avoid Dogville.
Content Advisory: Many explicit depictions of rape, one with nudity; shocking, brutal violence; and a hope deprived worldview. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment.
Personal Recommendation: C