In Dogville, the setting was an all-American small town, where goodness turns to greed and power corrupts absolutely. Von Trier’s territory is always the social underbelly, with no act too heinous or character too horrible for him to explore. With Manderlay, he goes after racism and white guilt. The Danish writer-director brings Grace — the fiery offspring of a cutthroat mobster — down South to a plantation called Manderlay, where she’s shocked to discover its black inhabitants are still being held as slaves well into the 1930s.
Like Dogville, Manderlay is shot on an open, mostly unadorned soundstage, and the actors are assisted by a handful of props, some scraps of sets and a host of lighting and sound effects. There’s also narration from John Hurt, who’s reminiscent of the narrator from the How the Grinch Stole Christmas TV special — omniscient, campy and slightly sarcastic.
Grace here is played by Dallas Bryce Howard instead of Nicole Kidman, who starred in Dogville. Howard is much more demonstrative than Kidman, and her intensity is well suited to the would-be heroine. Grace — whose motivation as a do-gooder is never stated — uses her guile, bravado and a gang of armed men inherited from her dad to try to set things right. Just as she comes close to pulling it off, however, it becomes clear that it will take more than good intentions and goodfellas to reverse the injustice.
Von Trier examines the psychology of racism, and whether African-Americans have truly achieved the freedom they were promised after the Civil War, and whether even liberal whites are willing to accept them. But his precise point remains unclear. That racism still lingers and is institutionalized in America is pretty obvious; nobody really needs two hours of impressions from von Trier — who’s never been here — to point that out.
Whatever the movie’s message, it gets muddied by von Trier’s distracting conceit. The stripped-down set becomes a distraction. The players knock on "air" where a door should be and we hear the thump, thump, thump and squeak of a hinge as they enter a room. It’s seems all too goofy and clunky.
At the end of Manderlay, von Trier punctuates his jabs at America with a collection of black-and-white images of Klan rallies and of civil rights protestors clashing with police, while playing David Bowie’s "Young Americans." (He did the same with images of poverty in Dogville.)
Von Trier takes his shots, but with the marksmanship of Dick Cheney. Just what he’s trying to achieve remains unclear.Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].