Everyone agrees that Lars von Trier is brimming with antagonism, but after that opinions diverge. The Danish writer-director’s latest provocation, a bewildering but never dull three-hour amalgam of Our Town, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and The Godfather, will only intensify the dispute. Is Dogville misogynistic, misanthropic, or both? Does it abhor the U.S.A. or only the wholesome-as-apple-pie image that even most Americans concede is a myth? And was it conceived in raw anger or in mischievous glee?
In summary, the story seems furious in the extreme. One day in the Depression-ruined ’30s, a stranger arrives in the small Colorado town of Dogville. Sweet-natured Grace (an almost pornographically vulnerable Nicole Kidman) is being pursued by gangsters, and she asks the locals to hide her. They’re reluctant, but aspiring writer and self-appointed moral authority Thomas Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) rallies the townspeople’s better instincts. Grace agrees to do odd jobs to pay for her refuge, and everyone comes to like her. After they see a wanted poster offering a large reward for Grace, however, the Dogvillians decide that she should provide more than a little cleaning and babysitting for her sanctuary. Grace becomes the town’s scapegoat and sex slave, a one-woman American underclass.
This story, of course, can be interpreted in manifold ways. It’s a New Testament parable, with the aptly named Grace as its Christlike paragon, that ends with an Old Testament kicker. It’s a critique of capitalism—every aspect of Grace is for sale—but also of such unmercantile American values as empathy, forgiveness, and neighborliness. And it can be—and indignantly has been—seen as an assault on the United States, a country that the airplane-avoiding von Trier has never visited.
The film’s tone is equally complicated. Von Trier, whose Dogma 95 “vow of chastity” banned such traditional Hollywood artifices as sets and sound effects, shot Dogville entirely on a soundstage (with handheld camera, of course). The town is represented by a schematic drawing, with only a few three-dimensional details but lots of modern-theater stagecraft. (When an invisible door closes, we hear it hit the nonexistent door frame.) To further enhance the Brechtian alienation, the film is divided into chapters and narrated by John Hurt in an arch sort of Anglo-Danish diction. Hurt’s voice-over is an even more intrusive, and more sustained, presence than Max van Sydow’s in 1991’s Zentropa, the first von Trier film to get U.S. distribution—and the first to be accused of anti-Americanism.
Dogville is an amoralist’s moral tale, with the seemingly exemplary Grace facing a series of tormentors who embody traditional—and not so traditional—Christian vices. Rough-mannered farmer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) is Lust. Jack (Ben Gazzara), who won’t admit he’s gone blind, is Vanity. Imperious local shopkeeper Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) is Pride. Potential getaway driver Ben (Zeljko Ivanek) is Avarice. Chuck’s vengeful wife, Vera (Patricia Clarkson), and local temptress Liz (Chloë Sevigny) vie for the role of Jealousy. Hypochondriac doctor Thomas Edison Sr. (Philip Baker Hall) is Fear. And young Tom is Sanctimony—in von Trier’s universe, perhaps the worst sin of all.
Narratively, Dogville largely follows the model of the director’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, in which Emily Watson and Björk, respectively, were the victims. Like her predecessors, Kidman’s Grace takes abuse with a martyr’s forbearance. In the last act, however, von Trier significantly alters the schema: A new character arrives and offers Grace an opportunity for retribution. What happens next is as dramatically effective as it is morally disagreeable. Dogville’s final minutes transform all that went before, giving an unforgettable wallop to an endeavor that previously seemed primarily an eccentric, if exceptionally well-performed, exercise in theatrical anti-cinema.
Von Trier has said that his film’s vision of a persecuted outsider was partly inspired by Denmark’s recent crackdown on immigration. Defenders of the States’ good name will note, however, that Dogville is not set in Denmark. Still, its scenario doesn’t necessarily reflect European contempt for the American dream. Von Trier could easily have fashioned his assessment from esteemed American works that challenge the myth of the idyllic small town, including Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock. (Perhaps von Trier has even seen the first version of Walking Tall.) And there’s nothing in Dogville that’s harsher than the vision of this country offered by Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, or the gangster flicks the movie ultimately invokes.
Yet with von Trier, it seems, there’s always another shoe to drop. Dogville ends with a montage of political
horror-show images of this country, set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” This final blow is crude, blatant, and unfair—so maybe Dogville really is anti-American. But it’s also a powerful film from a director who has, for the first time in years, proved himself more than just a troublemaker.
Set in a more completely visualized, but no less one-dimensional, American hamlet, Walking Tall is much simpler than Dogville. That’s inevitable, given that it not only stars the Rock but has no reason to exist without him. The 1973 original may have expressed some genuine, if crude, populist sentiment, but genuineness doesn’t suit a man who made his rep as a professional wrestler. The heir to Schwarzenegger (and Weissmuller), the Rock can’t handle much more thematic substance than taking off his shirt and clobbering some people.
This remake, directed by Kevin Bray, has been transplanted from the South to the Pacific Northwest, perhaps because the latter looks like British Columbia, where all U.S. action flicks with forests and mountains are shot. Someone mentions that the fictional location is near Aberdeen, apparently referring to Kurt Cobain’s hometown. (The like-grunge-never-happened soundtrack, however, highlights the Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker, and the Ohio Players.) The Rock plays Chris Vaughn, a Special Forces ace who returns to his hometown because—get this—he wants to work in the sawmill that long employed his dad.
But the mill is closed, shuttered by unscrupulous rich brat Jay (Neal McDonough). A former classmate of Chris and his best pal, Ray (Johnny Knoxville), Jay now runs a casino that has become the mainstay of the local economy. And because the peddling of one vice apparently isn’t enough to establish Jay’s villainy, the gambling den is also a strip club whose vicious bouncers sell dope on the side. (What, no al Qaeda connection?)
This is one of those movies in which every scene goes exactly where you’d expect: When Chris makes his first visit to the Wild Cherry Casino, he’s greeted by Jay and ushered into a peep-show booth. A lithe blonde begins to dance, and before the first reaction shot of our hero, it’s obvious that the woman will turn out to be Chris’s ex. Yup, she’s Deni (Ashley Scott), another local feature in need of redemption. Before Chris can help her, though, he makes a scene over a pair of loaded dice, leading the casino’s bouncers to rough him up, hold him down, and scar his chest with a knife. After he recovers, Chris grabs a length of two-by-four—cedar, naturally—and busts up the casino. Arrested and put on trial, he offers a sort of posse comitatus defense and promises to run for sheriff if he’s acquitted. Quickly exculpated and elected, Chris deputizes the only man he can trust, Ray, and starts to scrub the town clean.
April is shaping up as the month of the vigilante film (next week brings The Punisher and Kill Bill—Vol. 2), and Walking Tall is surely the most perfunctory of the lot. That doesn’t make it the least likable, however. The movie is reprehensible, of course, but it’s also agreeably unironic and admirably efficient: The director hops narrative developments with a single bound and concludes the whole operation in about 75 minutes. (The exceedingly slow-crawling credits add roughly another 10.)
Knoxville proves to be one of the funnier action-flick sidekicks of recent years, although he’s not as amusing as Walking Tall’s most brazen touches. When the bad guys’ final assault begins, for example, Chris and Deni have just made up and made out, so she’s not fully dressed. Handed a pistol, Deni starts firing back while wearing only tight jeans and a red bra. Quentin Tarantino and his ilk should be grateful that while they chatter about their love for “grindhouse,” someone is still devising flourishes like that for them to pillage. CP