What we have here is classic drama stripped down to its essentials. In telling the tale of a mysterious city girl (Nicole Kidman) who seeks asylum in a mountain town, writer/director von Trier has removed almost every element that could qualify as a distraction. All of the action takes place on one soundstage, with the homes and buildings of humble Dogville represented as chalk-marked spaces on a charcoal floor. Only some furniture and the odd standing wall adorn locations identified as block-printed names on the ground. The project may have been inspired by Bertolt Brecht, but its staging suggests "Our Town" laid out by Milton Bradley.
The approach does wonders for the story, which decries the toxic insularity of its Depression-era milieu. On the run from gangsters, Kidman's saintly refugee pointedly named Grace overcomes the ambivalence of the Dogville citizenry to become a protected, even loved member of the community. But the minute these not-so-simple folks realize the risk they may have incurred by harboring her, she becomes a hapless scapegoat -- a walking receptacle for their needs, fears and vices.
The task of enacting von Trier's paranoid narrative -- which clocks in at a whopping 177 minutes falls to a miraculous cast, including Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall and Stellan Skarsgård. It's the best stage play you've ever attended, and you feel as if you're right in the middle of it, with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle's hand-held camera zipping from one face to the other, as if even he isn't sure what's about to be said. (This technique, a surefire turnoff in the wrong hands, works like a dream throughout Dogville.) While spending three hours in such close quarters with Nicole Kidman might sound like punishment for some low-level misdemeanor, she turns in a delicate, bravura performance that indicates her recent string of duds may have been an unfortunate fluke.
Yet to say that the movie's minimalism vindicates film as an actors' medium is not entirely correct. Notice how von Trier breaks up particularly heated monologues with jump cuts and assigns crucial plot developments to his unseen narrator (a wry John Hurt). What the filmmaker is really doing is asserting the primacy of story, and the one he's concocted keeps you on the edge of your seat.