Friday, September 10, 2004

Here's a Thursday video review!
Rarely have I seen a movie more cynical about human nature than “Dogville.”
Directed and written by the controversial Danish director Lars Von Trier, “Dogville” is the kind of intellectual art film that polarizes viewers. It’s full of ideas and allegory, philosophy and pain.
It tells the tale of Dogville, a tiny isolated Rocky Mountain town with a community of proud but struggling “humble folk.” When the stranger, Grace (Nicole Kidman), wanders into town, on the run from mysterious men, she is at first feared by the wary townspeople.
But young writer Tom (Paul Bettany) befriends her, and eventually Grace is accepted by the people of Dogville. She begins doing part-time work for the citizens to thank them for their kindness. But the charity soon turns into slavery, as Dogville is revealed to have a bitter side for the unsuspecting Grace.
Despite being a slow-moving three hours long, “Dogville” still sucks you in, because you want to see what happens next, but then slaps you in the face for daring to care about the characters.
It betrays the viewer, and in that way is ultimately far more disappointing that your standard subpar Hollywood clunker.
“Dogville” takes the not exactly fresh idea that small-town life has a seamy, corrupt side, and drives that topic into the ground. Overblown, sarcastic “Our Town”-style narration by John Hurt rapidly becomes intrusive and finally excruciatingly smug.
Kidman gives a great performance as the wounded, pained Grace, perhaps one of her finest roles yet. In truth, she gives Grace more weight than the movie deserves, and she’s the main reason the movie is worth seeing. She’s the beating heart of this cold film, and too many of the other actors are playing one-note caricatures.
What throws the viewer at first glance is the look of “Dogville.” Von Trier sets it on a nearly bare soundstage, with chalk lines representing homes and walls. He shoots with a stark digital film lighting, giving the movie a hyper-real feel. The closest comparison I can make is to watching a filmed play, and it’s a stark, eye-catching vision.
Bettany as the dithering, head-in-the-clouds philosopher, Tom, becomes incredibly annoying over three hours. Even the great Lauren Bacall is wasted in a nothing role.
I appreciate “Dogville’s” technical experimental feel and the solid acting talent involved. But the arrogance of Von Trier’s thesis overwhelms the depth of his talent.
A climactic speech by a character played by James Caan argues a nearly fascist viewpoint that the strong should destroy the weak. Perhaps Von Trier means it as satire. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.
Some critics have called the movie “anti-American.” Indeed, Von Trier really goes over the top with a ironic use of David Bowie’s classic “Young Americans” over the closing credits. But I’d argue it’s “anti,” period.
Von Trier has always been an edgy filmmaker. His “Dancer In The Dark,” starring Björk, was equally vivid, but had a sense of joyful possibility that “Dogville” lacks. “Dogville” is thought-provoking, and for the right audience it might play better than it did with me.
But ultimately it’s a movie with no hope, and while I don’t regret seeing it, it’s one I cannot recommend.
*1/2 of four.

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