The Horror Honeys: Check Your Morals at the Door

Check Your Morals at the Door

A Conflicted Revenge Honey Review

Before I make with the reviewing, lets just start with one small fact. The minute that a director or actor or musician or a frigging mime reveals themselves to have a case of "Nazi tourettes," I'm probably going to be having some version of this reaction to them for the rest of forever.

Revenge Honey Fun Fact: "Nazi tourettes," a term coined by comedian Lewis Black, refers to those in the media who either insist on calling everyone a Nazi, or, like the director of the film I'm about to review, once said (paraphrasing the rant), "I'm a Nazi... I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a little bit." Oh HAI, rage babies. Here is the address of a director who is a dick. Could you stop at Mel Gibson's home on the way back?

I share this only so you are aware that there are multiple layers to my conflict over my feelings for this week's revenge film. Let us continue...

Lars Von Trier's Dogville is the kind of film that will make you question everything you believe about whether or not there is such a thing as inherent morality, and what you think you know about right and wrong. It is for this reason that Dogville has always been one of my favorite non-traditional horror films (douchebag director, notwithstanding.) If you have seen Dogville and disagree that it is a horror movie, I will explain my reasons presently. If you haven't seen it, find it, prepare to pause it at least three times because it's epically long, and then come back and discuss.

The premise of Dogville is actually quite simple: A young woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) is on the run from mobsters who are apparently trying to murder her. Grace stumbles into a small Colorado town called Dogville, where the residents, led by a man named Tom (Paul Bettany) seem to be the epitome of morality and kindness. The people of Dogville agree to hide Grace, as long as she agrees to help them around town and earn her keep. As this seems like a perfectly logical alternative to freezing to death in the mountains, Grace agrees.

However, nothing is ever really that simple in a Von Trier film. The longer Grace stays in Dogville, the more the residents expect her to do for them. Their demands on her become increasingly overwrought, and before long, they are treating Grace like their personal town slave: chaining her up and raping her at will when she tries to escape. The children of Dogville even take their turns tormenting her. They believe Grace's treatment is still a perfectly acceptable trade in exchange for hiding her from her pursuers. As you watch these townsfolk go from peaceful, quiet people to vicious and hateful abusers, you are left to wonder: are they driven here by circumstance or were they hiding their true nature all along?

SPOILER ALERT!: There is no way I can explain why I view Dogville as a brilliant example of revenge cinema without giving away the ending, so if you haven't seen the film yet and don't want to know how it ends, skip to the next section. As the film draws to a close, Tom decides to turn Grace over to the mobsters, because it's the "ethical" thing to do for the town. However, what no one in Dogville knows is that Grace is actually the daughter of a mob boss (James Caan), and in reality, she was running from the immorality of her father's business.

When the mafia shows up in Dogville to collect Grace, they discover the deplorable conditions that she has been living in. Knowing that she has been through hell, dear old dad gives Grace an option: the residents of Dogville can either be excused for their behavior because of their poverty, or they can die for their crimes against her. Grace chooses the latter, and not a single soul in Dogville is spared from the wrath of machine guns: not even the infant child of one of Grace's rapists. The only survivor is a pet dog, that Grace chooses to let go. Once again, a question of morality is raised by this ending: When a whole group of people have acted so deplorably and shown that they are so utterly devoid of compassion, can any of them be redeemed? What about an infant who may simply be infected with its' parents soulless behavior?

There is nothing easy about watching this film. It is a brutal and at times, unpleasant slog through questions that I am sure many people would rather not consider. But when you view the residents of Dogville through a larger sociological lens (the Holocaust, the genocide in Africa and Bosnia, really any situation where one group has committed mass violence and murder against another for no reason other than greed or spite), these are questions that must be considered. Once someone has been wholly corrupted, can they ever be saved?

NO MORE SPOILERS: Lars Von Trier has never been one to take the easy way out in his films; I will give him that much. Specifically, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, and Melancholia are movies that I found particularly gut-wrenching. (However, don't start with me about Antichrist. I hated it hard, and nothing you can say will convince me to feel any differently.) Dogville is no exception to his trend of mentally fucking with his audience. If you aren't left 100% questioning your views on ethics by the end of this film, then you weren't paying proper attention.

Exceptional Non-Revenge Elements: Dogville is a serious piece of experimental cinema, in addition to being the kind of film that doesn't shy away from the hard questions. The entire movie is set inside of a warehouse, with almost the whole town of Dogville drawn out in painted lines. Even some of the set is simply drawn on the floor (for example, the pet dog isn't actually there: he's just a painted outline on the floor.) Some people probably find this pretentious or even obnoxious, but I found it to be fascinating and brave. With almost no scenery to play off of, the actors are forced to interact solely with each other. This adds an entirely different level of communication to the performances.

Speaking of performances, the ones in Dogville are especially exceptional. I am entirely ambivalent about Nicole Kidman, and usually find her performances to be rather plastic. (This is in no way a comment on her immobile face.) However, in Dogville, she is spectacular. Watching her completely fall apart and have to confront her own changing morality as the film progresses to its' brutal climax is amazing. Additionally, as the residents of Dogville, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgård, and Chloë Sevigny are particularly effective. There is always an undercurrent of threat in every scene they share with Kidman, and at times the tension becomes unbearable.

Query with No Real Answer: Every time I power my way through Dogville, I can't help but wonder... Did Lars Von Triers's insane views on Hitler and the apparent "awesomeness" of the Nazis have any bearing on this film? The residents of Dogville are exploiting an essentially defenseless woman for their own needs, using pain and sexual violence as tools of persuasion. These are tactics of control used during periods of genocide for centuries. How could a man who made a comment like his create a movie where the innocent rises up against her captors? Is there another layer to the message because Dogville is an impoverished town and Grace comes from a privileged background? I really don't know the answer these questions. (Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both viewed Dogville as intensely anti-American, but I'm not sure that's a fair assessment. These issues are issues that exist in every culture. You can read the late Roger Ebert's review here.)

In the end, Dogville is everything a good horror revenge film should be: terrifying, tense, brutal, and it utterly makes you question what decisions you would make if you were placed in the same situation. In my book, this is clearly a horror film, because it is utterly horrifying.

Revenge Honey Stabby Points: 4 out 5
(Minus one point because Von Trier is an ass, and I'm not capable of
separating the artist from the art. I'm fine with that.)