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Movie poster of Dogville

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 minimal set to tell the story of Grace (Kidman), a fugitive from mobsters, who arrives in the small town of Dogville and is provided refuge in return for physical labor.

The film is the first in the USA - Land of Opportunities trilogy, followed by Manderlay (2005) and Wasington (2007).



The story of Dogville is told by a narrator (John Hurt) and takes place on a stage with minimalist 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; for example, the outlines of gooseberry bushes have the text "Gooseberry Bushes" written next to them. While this form of staging is common in black box theaters, it has never been attempted on film before. The bare staging serves to focus the audience's attention on the acting and storytelling, and also reminds them of the film's artificiality. As such it is heavily influenced by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht.

The movie was shot in a studio in Trollhättan, Sweden.

Tagline: A quiet little town not far from here.

Plot summary

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.

The town is seen from the point of view of Tom (Paul Bettany), an aspiring writer who procrastinates 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.

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Tom introduces Grace to the town at the meeting.
Larger version

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 in doing those chores that "nobody really needs" but which nevertheless make life better, 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 situation 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 threatens Grace with destroying the porcelain figurines created by the town shop that she had acquired with the little wages she was given, Grace begs for mercy remembering Vera about how she taught her children about stoicism. In response, Vera challenges Grace to stand up with out dropping a tear while she destroys the first two of the porcelain figurines. Grace not being able to hold her tears, Vera destroys the remaining figurines. 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 again. 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 his power to get rid of the town of Dogville. In particular, she tells one of the gangsters to look for the mother of the children (Vera) and tell her they will stop killing if she can hold back her tears while they kill the first two of her children. 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.


The film is set in the 1930s, and the small dead end town of Dogville can be 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? Grace too is faced with a test: when faced with cruelty from the people of Dogville, can she forgive them because they are poor, or will she seek revenge?

Some have called Dogville an allegory based on many elements of the Passion of Christ, and a number of plot twists to provide contemporary relevence, and interesting questions of morality and philosophy. Grace is compared with Jesus, who suffered unjustly at the hands of those he sought to serve. Tom is compared to the church, which, while claiming to love Grace, ultimately betrays her (with a kiss, a possible reference to Judas) because of its preference for self-righteousness and intellectualism (always seeking another "illustration"). The dialogue between Grace and her father in the car is described as a comparison between the "old-testament" and "new-testament" approaches to morality. Some view the brutal ending as posing the question: "What if Jesus decided he had suffered enough at the hands of those who abuse Grace?"

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 poverty stricken Americans of different eras flashing over the screen during the closing credits, accompanied by the song Young Americans by David Bowie, suggest that the film is in some sense intended to be a comment on American society.

One theme of the film is the difference between altruism and the quid pro quo arrangement set up between Grace and the townspeople. While initially the latter exchange is mutually beneficial, it is increasingly abused by those who hold power. This could be taken as an indictment of capitalism or as a comment on the self-centered nature of human relationships.

To a certain extent, the film also serves to question moral relativism. Grace, it seems, is incapable of passing judgement on any behavior - no matter how reprehensible. To her, all of these behaviors are merely products of circumstance. Her father, who appears later, argues that this is arrogant condescension, and that Grace should expect of others what she expects of herself.

Still others perceive Dogville to be an anti-Christian allegory, rather than anti-American, with Grace's "turn the other cheek" forgiveness being rejected in favour of divine vengeance. In this interpretation, the film is a condemnation of "weak" Christians who allow evil to go unchecked, such as during the Second World War.

External links

Movies by Lars von Trier
The Element of Crime | Epidemic | Zentropa | Breaking the Waves | Idioterne * | Dancer in the Dark | Dogville | Manderlay | Washington

de:Dogville et:Dogville it:Dogville nl:Dogville pt:Dogville


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