2003, R, 177 min. Directed by Lars von Trier. Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 16, 2004

The Danish director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) has made the most masterful film of his storied career. Yet what he has achieved in technical audacity and precision of expression, he has lost in the art of human connection. So skillful in its means of storytelling, Dogville nevertheless transmits such universal misanthropy that the self-loathing the viewer is gripped with at the end of the movie is more powerful than any appreciation of the gifts that came before. Moreover, von Trier reserves a special venom for Americans, and were there any doubt of this singling out of a whole nationality just wait for the film’s closing credits as David Bowie’s "Young Americans" plays over pictures of the hardscrabble faces recorded in the photographs taken during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration. The film is perhaps the most stylized of all von Trier’s films, yet it may also be the most stripped down. It starts with an overhead shot of the tiny Rocky Mountain community of Dogville – a sound stage with white lines marking the parameters of the houses, shops, and the abandoned silver mine at the edge of town. There is virtually no set decor, stark emptiness surrounds these characters as they deliver their lines and interact. The tone is somewhat reminiscent of the American classic Our Town or some medieval morality play. The story begins as the portentously named Grace (Kidman) enters the isolated town while being chased by gangsters. She is discovered by the town’s self-appointed spokesman Tom Edison (Bettany), who implores the community to take in Grace and hide her. Eventually, he coaxes everyone to chip in to give the woman work so she can earn her keep and remain in the community. Tom, if ever there were one, is a miner for a heart of gold, which he thinks he can find in Grace, who will inspire the entire town toward moral improvement. And so Grace begins her tour of duty, cheerfully reading to the blind Jack McKay (Gazzara), tending the gooseberry bushes for Ma Ginger (Bacall), babysitting for Vera (Clarkson), and so on. Everyone has chores for her to do, and so the seasons pass. Then one day a policeman comes by and tacks up a "Wanted" poster of Grace, and everyone’s attitude changes just a little bit. Suddenly, there is general displeasure with the manner in which Grace performs her tasks, and, little by little, they start treating her worse and worse. For nearly three hours, von Trier shows us Grace’s saga in Dogville. The hopes for moral improvement that started off so strongly are decimated by the movie’s end. The cast is spectacular, though von Trier’s vision leaves none of them unscathed. Von Trier locates the monster that resides in every human being and unleashes its full fury. It’s a gruesome sight, and although we may cheer the movie’s evisceration of false modesty, rationalization, and deception, it will also leave many viewers feeling spattered with the rancid remains. Von Trier’s vision is amazingly thorough and exquisitely executed, but the audience may feel executed as well.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Lars von Trier
DVDanger: NSFW
DVDanger: NSFW
The return of Eurosex with 'Nymphomaniac' and 'Under the Skin'

Richard Whittaker, July 19, 2014

From the Vaults: Looking Back at von Trier
From the Vaults: Looking Back at von Trier
"Melancholia" vs. "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark"

Marjorie Baumgarten, Jan. 6, 2012

More Lars von Trier Films
The House That Jack Built
Lars von Trier, back pushing buttons, to little response

Josh Kupecki, Dec. 14, 2018

Nymphomaniac: Volume 2
Second verse, not as good as the first.

Marc Savlov, April 4, 2014

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
Love means never having to flip to the B side

March 16, 2024

SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
A Hollywood garden party unearths certain truths

March 12, 2024


Dogville, Lars von Trier, Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle