After three hours of bleak drama -- set on a threadbare stage, and sometimes filmed with a jerky, close-up, hand-held camera whose movements feel more like tics than visual style -- the credits of Lars von Trier's Dogville roll by over a series of scolding archival photographs that depict America's 20th century of poverty and injustice, during which David Bowie sings the bouncy "Young Americans."
As thematic signifier, this closing sequence is no less subtle than what comes before it. Von Trier, who is Danish, would probably agree: He's rather weird and intellectual, the author of films like Dancer in the Dark (with Björk), Breaking the Waves (wherein Emily Watson meets God), and The Kingdom, or "Haunted Hospital." Von Trier calls Dogville the first of his "American trilogy." One wonders what he has left to say. His movie is certainly a morality play about any venal society, but it's especially a metaphor for American power and imperialism after World War I, an idea that he takes no prisoners in espousing.
Set in a Depression-era Colorado town of 15 adults and a smattering of children, Dogville revolves around a stranger: Grace (Nicole Kidman), much too appropriately named, shows up shortly after the town hears distant gunshots, followed soon by a sinister gangster's Cadillac looking for a missing woman, the black car's nearly silent owner obscured by curtains that cover its windows.
For the isolationist folks of Dogville, Grace is an unwelcome breath of fresh air. But for Tom (Paul Bettany), a self-proclaimed author/philosopher (he's yet to write a word) and the moral center of the depressed community, she offers him the chance to "illustrate" the sloppy, high-minded lectures (his surrogate for sex) that he gives to anyone he can persuade to listen. Bring this woman into our midst, Tom says, and by making her a part of your lives, let her show you your humanity.
So they assign her chores doing things that they, in their malaise and indifference, simply never bother to do. She teaches the kids philosophy, trims the wild gooseberry bushes, works in the apple orchard. She befriends old Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), a blind man who refuses to admit it. Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), who exploits her neighbors with overpriced goods in her little corner store, finds yard work for Grace. Tom's dad (Philip Baker Hall), a retired doctor turned hypochondriac, lets Grace tend to what ails him. The town's official black maid (Cleo King), who calls the white folks "Massa," even gets a little help.
So do the rest of Dogville's residents, portrayed by a mostly distinguished cast of Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Zeljko Ivanek, ChloÃ« Sevigny, Harriet Andersson, Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd, James Caan as an outsider, and, as the narrator, without whose ubiquitous enlightenment it all would surely make little sense, John Hurt.
Von Trier constructs his movie's eponymous town on a sound stage, using white lines to demark the non-existent frames of invisible houses, with a few pieces of furniture inside each "home," and with street names painted on the ground. When someone knocks on an imaginary door, we hear the sound effect of knuckles on wood. When Moses, the town's dog, barks at the approach of a stranger, there's no dog for us to see, just an outline of an overweight mutt with floppy ears and a tail.
Thus Dogville is neo-Brechtian cinema theater, more like Faulkner in its moral complexities than Our Town, with effusive narration in the style of a 19th-century novel (Tom's dad reads Tom Sawyer), and with its story told through a prologue and nine chapters, each one beginning with a title. (Chapter 1: In which Tom hears gunfire and meets Grace. Chapter 4: "Happy Times in Dogville" -- the quotation marks are von Trier's.)
You don't have to work very hard to grapple with the moral issues that von Trier raises in his tale of collective crime and collective guilt. How the people of Dogville gradually come to exploit Grace -- what they do to her or allow to be done -- is wrong in every way, and what she does to repay them is how movies end (so says the title of Chapter 9). Given a choice between good and evil, we're told, we'll always choose the latter and then find a way to live with ourselves. Even Grace, whose capacity for forgiveness borders on arrogance, and who came to Dogville seeking respite from the cruelty of the city, has her limit. "Dogs only obey their own nature," she says, "so why shouldn't we forgive them?" When she comes up with an answer, the pendulum swings.
Despite serving up his knotty themes like a smorgasbord, von Trier still manages to take each of his characters through an absorbing (if emotionally detached) arc, from repressed to almost warm to the turning point that causes them to "bare their teeth" (Chapter 6). The actors work hard to keep it lean, and Kidman's inquisitive darting eyes, in pain and terror, remind us again that she could have been a silent screen star.
Will Americans tolerate seeing themselves portrayed like this? Do children like taking their castor oil? "These are wicked times," a character says, in a moment typical of dialogue that means to look back as it also looks around. And so von Trier has assigned himself the responsibility of overseeing American culture and politics, a dirty job that someone has to do.