There is an unforgettable scene in Dogville. It is unconventional, risky, unsettling, and it sums up writer/director Lars von Trier's rage against human hard-heartedness. In a wordless moment, the camera, the actors, the stage and the silence offer us a sobering observation. All that comes before it has set the stage for this moment, when the movie makes its chilling revelation.
Like Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, Dogville tells a simplistic fable of man who takes care of a stranger while others abuse and take advantage of her. Alongside its biblical references, there are echoes of Greek tragedy, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Flannery O'Connor. With its 1930s Colorado mountain town setting and the pleasant voice of its narrator (John Hurt in a brilliant unseen performance), the film's most obvious allusions are to Thornton Wilder's celebrated play Our Town.
Von Trier is ambitious to place his story in contrast to such essential mythologies. His films have always had an air of self-importance and indulgence. And yet, while his bombastic style would make Beethoven blush, it is hard to deny his visionary talent. With each film, he brings a sledgehammer to filmmaking conventions. Audiences are compelled as much by his innovations as they are by his willingness to wrestle difficult questions, no matter who gets hurt. Dogville, while not his most original story, becomes the first feature in which the ideas he presents make worthwhile the ordeal of sitting through it.
Again, von Trier has chosen a brilliant cast, led by Nicole Kidman. In Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson had the role that made her an international star. Bjork deserved the awards she won for her uncannily heartfelt performance in Dancer in the Dark. Kidman's work, while not as complex, is memorable as well.
She plays Grace Mulligan, a beautiful fugitive sneaking up Dogville's mountain to escape gun-wielding gangsters. She doesn't get far. Moses the vigilant watchdog reveals her to the local philosopher, Tom Edison (Master and Commander's Paul Bettany).
Already you have noticed the "loaded" character names—Grace, Moses, Tom Edison. Abandoning the realism of his previous morality plays, von Trier makes these characters mere sketches, types that lend themselves readily to metaphor. The farmer represents hard-working folk. The truck driver, industry. The shopkeeper, capitalism.
Sensing her innocence, Tom takes Grace into his care. But it's not just charity. Tom wants to teach his town a lesson. "I've got nothing to offer them," Grace protests. He disagrees: "No, I think you've got plenty to offer Dogville." Upon a second viewing of the film, that line becomes positively chilling.
Dogville seems a fine community at first glance—"Reserved but friendly, not without curiosity," says the narrator. But you can't trust this narrator. Von Trier, like David Lynch, zooms past the quaint exterior to reveal the evil at work behind closed doors. Dogville's insular community is populated with self-protective liars who behave with contempt and defensiveness when strangers come to town. Tom sees Grace's arrival as an opportunity to expose the selfishness of the townsfolk.