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Dogville (2003)

A quiet little town not far from here.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 178 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Ever since co-founding Dogme 95, Danish provocateur Lars von Trier has proven time and time again that in the right hands less can often be more, and ‘Dogville’ is no exception. To say it is the first film of a projected trilogy, and is itself a whopping three hours in length, might conjure up expectations of another Lord of the Rings-style epic, high on spectacle and low on substance – but the opposite is in fact true. For while the film’s set is determinedly lo-fi, consisting merely of chalk lines drawn on a studio floor rather than actual streets and buildings, nonetheless with von Trier holding the leash this moral fable of bordertown corruption and biblical vengeance manages to grip the viewer with its ferocious bite.

One night during the Great Depression, in the impoverished and isolated community of Dogville on the edge of the Rockies, moralist and would-be writer Tom (Paul Bettany) finds a mysterious fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman), trying to steal a bone from the town dog. Following Tom’s advice, Grace wins the acceptance of the other townsfolk by offering to work an hour a day for each household. When a wanted poster appears linking Grace to the gangsters she was fleeing, the community agrees to continue harbouring her, but gradually takes greater and greater advantage of her vulnerability, until eventually she is placed in chains, used for slave labour all day and raped by night. In the end even Tom, Grace’s closest ally, betrays her, inviting the gangsters to come get her – an act with apocalyptic consequences for the whole of Dogville.

With ‘Dogville’, once again von Trier has rewritten the language of cinema, appropriating the barebones look of his sets from Greek tragedy or the agitprop theatre of Brecht, and punctuating his story with chapter headings and acerbic narration (brilliantly voiced by John Hurt) as though the film were some Victorian novel. The effect is both to make Dogville invisible, so that viewers can literally see through its façades to the true natures of its inhabitants, and also to transform it into a timeless, allegorical space onto which viewers can project all manner of myths. For ‘Dogville’ is all at once a revenger’s tale, the tragedy of a suppliant refugee, a parable of New Testament forgiveness and Old Testament wrath, a blues riff on down-and-out life, a Lynchian exposé of small-town evil, and, most importantly, a damning illustration of how easily those in power can be tempted to abuse and exploit.

Dogville’s central strip is named Elm Street, like the street where Kennedy was assassinated or where Freddy Krueger terrifies children in their sleep, and indeed the film suggests, not unlike the recent Gangs of New York, that the high ideals of the American Dream are always being shattered by dog-eat-dog corruption, greed and violence. ‘Dogville’ resonates provocatively with barely veiled reflections on US policy past and present, culminating in a photomontage of American poverty and misery set to the ironic accompaniment of David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, and consequently when the film was first screened at Cannes, it incurred the ire of US critics who labelled von Trier ‘anti-American’ and ‘arrogant’ (the latter itself a key word in the film). Yet ‘Dogville’ is really about the corrupting dynamics of power in general, set in an Anytown that we all inhabit, and I am sure that what von Trier sees as supremely wrong with the state of the world’s current Superpower, he would concede is equally rotten, albeit on a smaller scale, even in the state of Denmark.

It's Got: An ensemble cast to make filmbuffs drool (and they all put in their understated best), evocatively minimal sets, a brutally powerful story, and a script which manages to make lines like I cant buck the freight industry genuinely chilling - and there is never a dull moment.

It Needs: Greater acceptance.


Confronting viewers with an ugly picture of themselves that some may not wish to see, this fable of corruption, exploitation and vengeance in a one-dog town is a classic story told in a bold new way, with never a dull moment.