Dogville is a 2003 movie written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany. It is a parable that uses an extremely minimalized set to tell the story of Grace (Kidman), a fugitive from the mafia, who arrives in the small town of Dogville and is provided refuge in return for physical labor.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Plot summary
3 Interpretations
4 External links


The story of Dogville is told by a narrator (John Hurt) and takes place on a stage with minimal scenery. Some walls and furniture are placed on the stage, but the rest of the scenery exists merely as white painted outlines which even have big labels on them, so that, for example, the main street has the text "Elm St." in white paint written on it. The scenery is poor even by theatrical standards, and a sense of surrealism permeates the film. This deprived setting serves to emphasize both the plot and the acting, taking the principles of the Dogme 95 collective to the extreme.

The film plays in the 1920s, and the small dead end town of Dogville is used as a symbol for any similar town in the United States or, in fact, anywhere. As the two dozen or so citizens of Dogville are introduced to Grace, they are put to a moral test: Are they willing to save a woman who is quite clearly innocent, and to in effect risk their own lives for her, receiving little more than kindness in return?

The film proved to be highly controversial, and many have compared it - both in style and in substance - to the critical plays of Bertolt Brecht. It is the first in a trilogy, to be followed by Manderlay (2004), in which Grace will be placed by Bryce Howard.

Plot summary

Warning: Spoilers follow

Dogville is a very small town near the Rocky Mountains, with a road leading up to it, but nowhere to go but the mountains. The film begins with a prologue in which we meet the two dozen or so citizens of the town. They are portrayed as lovable, good people with small flaws which are easy to forgive.

Most notable of the towsnpeople is Tom (Paul Bettany), an aspiring writer who procrastinates his work by trying to get his fellow citizens together for regular meetings on the subject of "moral rearmament". It is clear that Tom wants to succeed his aging father as the moral and spiritual leader of the town.

It is Tom who first meets Grace (Nicole Kidman), who is on the run from gangsters who apparently shot at her. Grace, a beautiful but modest woman, wants to keep running, but Tom assures her that the mountains ahead are too difficult to pass. As they talk, the gangsters approach the town, and Tom quickly hides Grace in a nearby mine. One of the gangsters asks Tom if he has seen the woman, which he declines, and so the gangster offers him a reward and hands him a card with a phone number to call in case Grace shows up.

Tom decides to use Grace as an "illustration" in his next meeting -- a way for the townspeople to prove that they are indeed committed to community values, and willing to help the stranger. They remain skeptical, so Tom proposes that Grace should be given a chance to prove that she is a good person. Grace is accepted for two weeks in which, as Tom explains her after the meeting, she has to convince the townspeople to like her.

Tom introduces Grace to the town at the meeting.

On Tom's suggestion, Grace offers to do chores for the citizens -- talking to the lonely, blind Jack McCay (Ben Gazzara), helping to run the small shop, looking after the children of Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) and Vera (Patricia Clarkson), and so forth. After some initial reluctance, the people accept her help, and so she becomes a part of the community. After the two weeks are over, everyone votes that she should be allowed to stay.

In tacit agreement, she is expected to continue her chores, which she does gladly, and is even paid small wages in return. But when the police arrive to place a "Missing" poster with Grace's picture and name on it on one of the houses, the mood darkens slightly. Should they not cooperate with the police? Still, things continue as usual until the 4th of July celebrations. After Tom awkwardly admits his love to Grace and the whole town expresses their agreement that it has become a better place thanks to her, the police arrive again to replace the "Missing" poster with a "Wanted" poster. Grace is now wanted for participation in a bank robbery. Everyone agrees that she must be innocent, since at the time the robbery took place, she was doing chores for the townspeople every day.

Nevertheless, Tom argues that because of the increased risk to the town now that they are harboring someone who is wanted as a criminal, Grace should provide a quid pro quo and do more chores for the townspeople within the same time. At this point, what was previously a voluntary arrangement takes on a slightly coercive nature as Grace is clearly uncomfortable with the idea. Still, being very manipulable and wanting to please Tom, Grace agrees.

At this point the situation worsens, as with her additional workload, Grace inevitably makes mistakes, and the people she works for seem to be equally irritated by the new schedule -- and take it out on Grace. The situaion slowly escalates, with the male citizens making small sexual advances to Grace and the female ones becoming increasingly abusive. Even the children are perverse: Jason, the perhaps 10-year-old son of Chuck and Vera, asks Grace to spank him, until she finally complies after much provocation. Soon thereafter Chuck returns home and rapes Grace, as it becomes obvious that she is hardly able to defend herself against exploitation.

After Tom discusses the possibility of escape with her, Grace is blamed by Vera both for spanking Jason and for being raped by Chuck. In revenge, Vera destroys, one by one, the porcelaine figurines created by the town shop that Grace had acquired with the little wages she was given. The symbol of her belonging in the town gone, she now knows that she must leave. With the help of Tom and Ben, the freight driver, she attempts escape, only to find herself raped by Ben and then returned to the town.

The town agrees that they must not let her escape egain. The money that she used to pay Ben had been taken by Tom from his father, and Grace is blamed for the theft. Tom refuses to come forward because, he explains, this is the only way he can still protect Grace without people getting suspicious. At this point, Grace's status as slave is finally confirmed as she is collared and chained to a large iron wheel which she must carry around with her, too heavy to allow her to move anywhere outside the town. More humiliatingly still, a bell is attached to her collar and announces her presence wherever she goes. Suffice it to say that at this point, she becomes both work and sex slave for the town.

The townspeople seem to be embarrassed by what they are doing, so they try to get rid of Grace. Tom, who makes a decision to not let sentimentality get in the way of "doing the right thing", calls the mobsters. Tom and his fellow citizens lock Grace up in her shack, and Tom cordially welcomes the gangsters.

Grace is freed and we finally learn who she really is: the daughter of a powerful gang leader who ran away because she could not stand her father's dirty work. Her father confronts her in his big limousine and tells her that she is arrogant for not holding others to the same high standards she holds herself to. At first she refuses to listen to him, but as she looks again upon the town and its people, she is compelled to agree -- that she would have to condemn them to the worst possible punishment if she held them to her own standards, and that it would be inhumane not to do so.

So she asks her father to use the power he holds to get rid of the town of Dogville. The film ends in a crescendo of violence, as each citizen of the town, women and children included, is brutally murdered by the gangsters on direct order from Grace herself, except for Tom, whom she kills personally.


Some have called Dogville an anti-American movie because it seems to imply that America does not care for the weakest members of its society and worse, that they are exploited whenever people think they can get away with it. The images of homeless Americans of different eras flashing over the screen during the credits, accompanied by the song Young Americans by David Bowie, have done little to dispel that interpretation.

A more extreme view is that von Trier advocates the use of violence to punish those who do not help others. That interpretation is called into question by the fact that Grace, at the end of the film, has become as monstrous as those who mistreated her, ordering to kill even children and a baby in front of the eyes of their mother.

A perhaps more likely explanation is that von Trier wants the viewer to understand the use of violence by those who are oppressed and exploited, and offers as the only salvation true altruism without the expectation of a return on investment. In effect, the film portrays quid pro quo arguments as a slippery slope that leads directly to slavery and sexual exploitation.

External links