Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/13/04 04:38:25

"A real dog of a film."
1 stars (Sucks)

The images and music during Dogville's closing credits suggest the film as an anti-American polemic, but very little of the preceding three hours does anything to give weight to that particular critique. With a heroine no more likable than those who do her wrong, Dogville's unfocused attack incriminates everyone and no one.

Ramblingly written and barely directed by experimental guru Lars von Trier, Dogville presents a tiny town whose residents are universally loathsome. Called upon to reveal a soft side upon the arrival of not-so-innocent Grace (Nicole Kidman), the town cannot maintain it for long, turning on Grace when questions about her past surface. On the other hand, those questions are hardly unfounded, and Grace takes a shocking amount of abuse with a disturbingly quiet tolerance - until she gets a chance at revenge, that is.

The problem (well, one of the problems) with von Trier's "America sucks" message is that the audience needs to root for someone against the microcosmic America of Dogville, and Grace fails to fit the bill. Von Trier seems to be suggesting that America is inclined to exploit the poor, who suffer such abuse because they don't have better options, but here the metaphor goes off the tracks, since the exploitation of Grace springs from a knee-jerk fear of a vaguely-described shady past and not from her financial situation alone - in addition to which, the citizens of Dogville are plenty poor themselves.

Maybe, then, von Trier's film is simply misanthropic. In fact, he seems to hate a wide range of people. He obviously has real problems with America, but this and previous films also suggest that he has some real issues with women. Whether or not Grace is supposed to be the heroine of the film in von Trier's eyes, he certainly subjects her to a shameful amount of abuse - the townsfolk end up chaining her to a wheel while the men take turns raping her. Even assuming something suitably extreme were absolutely necessary to show the town's problems, the torrent of abuse Grace suffers just goes overboard.

Indeed, it's never really clear who von Trier hates the most: Americans, women, or the whole human race. If the film's repetitive themes and stilted dialogue are anything to go by, though, it seems he hates his actors the most. Dogville as a film feels like the penance for anyone who wasn't smart enough to turn it down. Kidman in particular tries to save the film, but there's really nothing she can do with such a character, and everyone else plays roles so irredeemably awful that the best acting in the world would really only make them worse.

Even assuming that the allegory of Dogville were perfect, it wouldn't explain the film's almost unfathomably long three-hour running time, nor is it clear what the endless narration and chalk-outline sets add to the film's point... whatever that happens to be. They fail to make the film any more interesting, at any rate. The narration, delivered by a smug-sounding John Hurt, is disturbingly matter-of-fact, failing to account for the problematic nature of the goings-on in Dogville. It's okay for films not to give answers, but von Trier's vision is so bleak and inhuman that it begs explanation. That none comes only makes the events seem worse, as a failure to justify them only makes von Trier seem sadistic, not intelligent.

Both dreary and uncomfortable to watch, significantly overlong, and unsure of what about America or anything else it's trying to target, Dogville misses just about every conceivable mark. The mixture of bad ideas with needless gimmickry hasn't worked for a film yet, and Dogville isn't even close to being the first.

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