Finding an audience for Dogville (rated R for violence and sexual content) will be difficult. For one thing, the stage-bound, minimalist sets (the fictional Rocky Mountain town of Dogville is little more than white lines on a mostly empty soundstage) are out of place in a medium heavily dependent on realism.
But were audiences to get past the film's aesthetics, most still wouldn't respond well to the story itself, which is as obstinately unrealistic as the town, and will certainly be interpreted-in fact, must be interpreted-as virulently anti-American and even anti-Christian. This sort of thing doesn't play well at the multiplexes, particularly coming from a Danish director (Lars von Trier) who, having never set foot in this country, knows it only through the media.
The plot is as bare-boned as the sets. Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the run from gangsters, stumbles into Dogville one night. Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) is a self-styled town philosopher, a man of letters bent on shaping the small, insulated town into something better. (It's barely worth noting the heavy-handed symbolism of all the names here.) Grace's arrival fits perfectly into his plan, because Tom is convinced that what the town needs is a "free gift"-and what gift is freer than Grace, right?
Dogville reluctantly, then enthusiastically, accepts Grace. But the townspeople quickly begin to brutally abuse Grace's willingness to serve her protectors in exchange for their kindness. Mr. von Trier stages several shocking scenes of the town's brutality that give the film its R rating. These scenes are neither explicit nor prurient, but they are lengthy and disturbing.
The overtly religious language early in the film telegraphs a radical, dramatic shift in tone toward the end of Dogville. There are several such shifts, on a smaller scale, that repeatedly undercut both audience expectations and emotional investment in the characters. Mr. von Trier clearly knows when the audience is growing too comfortable and chooses that moment to damn them for following his lead.
The last about-face, though, is the most shocking, and transforms the film from an exposé of small-town life into something much more spiritually significant. Without giving too much away, it would be easy, if more than a little disquieting, to understand the climax of the film as a cosmic debate between God the Father and God the Son, between judgment and mercy.
As fascinating and challenging as Dogville is, the film suffers from Mr. von Trier's profound disgust for everyone involved. The director seems to despise his characters, his audience, perhaps even himself. Dogville appears to be a passionate cry from a man who sees something terribly wrong with the world, but has rejected the only framework that would allow him to truly understand it and to see that its redemption is possible.