Wot you gonna do with your societal dregs? Put it on stage to abstract its salient tropes, illuminating them to make your hopefully artful and not artsy, pretentious, representation. With Dogville, you might find the abstraction too much, set up to be minimalistic, or rather – bare – but ironically “failing” with its reliance on stylization to make its point.
A woman on the run, Grace (Nicole Kidman), finds respite from her assailants in a small mountain township called Dogville. Moral philosopher and budding but unemployed writer Thomas Edison gives her this chance, doubly serving as a test of the town’s generosity and overall moral goodness, a test they reluctantly endure even as it seems Grace is a criminal or maybe wanted by criminals. To sugar coat it, in the manner of the plainly sarcastic voice-over narration, we follow the highs and lows of the townsfolk and their relationship with Grace, including a fair share of naughtiness and unpleasantness inbetween.
Underneath all the formalistic playfulness of being a giant Brechtian allusion, Dogville is nothing but von Trier at his mischievous best, exposing the nestled degradation at the heart of Third World America. Not to say that Dogville conflates the latter with the titular town and its depravity, but horror is known to hide behind religious repression when poverty triumphs. Juxtaposed against this, as the apparent main objective, is the slippery slope of moral rectitude.
Watching those cheap end credits, any feelings of disgust are amplified above the ironic Dickinsonian sentiment, bringing home the point more forcefully besides. These couple minutes of montage photography go straight for the jugular that a three hour epic sort of dragged along to despite itself. By the end, it’s well worth the wait, but for its purpose, the film is an hour too long at least: one of the drawbacks of giving auteurship to genius brat filmmakers. Its ultimate suggestion is reached exploitatively (in the original sense of the exploitation genre) because this is Lars von Trier afterall: ruthless, efficient, and covert annihilation is a natural response to the raw horror of total moral degeneracy. It wants to feel what Apocalypse Now only shows, but it cannot speak on the same level as that particular masterpiece. Nonetheless, it’s von Trier’s best.