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Dogville

The evils of human nature

The latest effort by eccentric Dutch filmmaker Lars von Trier, Dogville, is as long as a Bollywood movie but a lot less entertaining. You won't find any singing and dancing, or joy for that matter, here. What you will find is an austere allegory on the capacity of communities to accept people different from them into their ranks.

The movie's tagline reads: "A quiet little town not far from here." The town, Dogville, is set in the Colorado mountains during the depression, but could very well take place in any number of places all over the world both then and now. Both the moral of the story and its staging contribute to the constructed and practically forced universality of this work. The entire film is shot on a giant no frills soundstage complete with white lines delineating the houses and austere block letters literally spelling out everything from the street names to the bushes to the town dog. It's like an Ikea world gone mad.

The richness of the acting, fortunately, balances out the starkness of everything else. The grueling three-hour movie told in nine chapters and a prologue goes by quicker than you anticipate due in large part to the efforts of the cast. Nicole Kidman plays the ethereal Grace, a woman who mysteriously flees to the town seeking refuge from mobsters hot on her trail. She is reluctantly given temporary asylum with the help of Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a naïve and narcissistic young man so lost in his own supposed greatness that he's become out of touch with reality.

Tom comes up with the brilliant idea that Grace should try and work for the town members as a way to win their confidence. At first they decline her offer, but they soon come to enjoy having their own personal slave- a town slave if you will. As the risk increases for the community to harbor Grace, so does the amount of work she must perform in order to show her gratitude.

Like most of the writer/director's heroines, Grace is a one-dimensional character set-up to fall. Thus, instead of leaving or standing up for her rights, she accepts their abuse and demands much like a subservient dog. Trier's eerie, nearly pathological obsession with exposing the hypocrisy and susceptible morality that thrives and exists, in his eyes, in rural areas falls to the wayside here. The more important issue is Trier's misogynistic tendencies, why are his heroines all the same person (innocent, naïve wide-eyed ingénues who are manipulated and then destroyed by the big, bad world)? He got his point across in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark,- it's time to move on to another topic and another archetype.

Dogville looks at the worst aspects of human nature full in the face, using a spotlight to make sure every dark crevice is exposed. This film holds nothing back- the camerawork is unrelenting with close-ups and shots that get right into the heart of the matter, the plot is raw and the delivered like a bitter pill and the actors expose themselves from the inside out. The all-star cast, including Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny and Stellan Skarsgard, give you their all. Indeed, Trier is well known for being a demanding director who wrings and wrests performances out of his cast. This film is no exception.

His last two movies have focused on old-town America although the director/writer himself has yet to step onto our shores. The fact that he creates work based in American without having been here, however, makes no difference to this reviewer. What does make a difference is the utter and human violence unveiled in this movie, and the lesson he is forcing us to derive from such work. I think he's ground this particular point down to a pulp and it just might be time for him to find another topic about which to get up on the soapbox.