A woman on the run from the mob is reluctantly accepted in a small Colorado town. In exchange, she agrees to work for them. As a search visits the town, she finds out that their support has a price. Yet her dangerous secret is never far away.
After gangster Mulligan's (Willem Dafoe's) cars colony, fleeing northern justice, finds a hiding place in Alabama, spoiled, naive daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) refuses to travel on after seeing the Manderlay cotton plantation being run under slavery rules, called Mam's (Lauren Bacall's) law, including flogging. She keeps half of dad's goons as guard to force the dying matriarch-owner's heirs, which she shamelessly dispossesses and reduces to "staff", to taste destitution under absurd, gun-imposed contracts. The "slaves" are made free partners, supposed to vote for progress after lessons from Grace. But almost all of her democracy-pupils prove to be fickle, dumb, and selfish, except old Wilhelm (Danny Glover). Her and their ignorance in Southern planting and crafty Dixie ways means more problems are created then solved. By the time dad returns to pick her up or abandon her for good, she's the one who has learned and changed the most.Written by
A person may not have to see "Dogville" before they get to this film-- but it helps. Von Trier takes his time getting where he is going, laying tracks in plenty of directions, and if you are not familiar with his style and don't know that it will all end with a colossal crunch, you may feel bored or confused. Fear not, though-- this movie's climax and finish depend wholly on the build-up, and when they happen they are shattering. In a shorter movie with less nuance and fewer ideas presented, it would just be exploitation.
Critics who say that Lars von Trier is just grinding an axe and that his views on America are unwelcome and inaccurate are missing the larger point. So far the two movies of his new trilogy seem to be seething with questions, not preaching answers. The spectrum of perspectives and philosophies presented make these movies themselves as experimental as the moral quests of Tom in "Dogville" and Grace in "Manderlay". We get to share initial outrage, labor for a solution, and then despair in how easily it all falls apart once human weakness and natural disaster are factored in.
Adjusting to the change of casting takes a few moments, but then it just fits right in with the theatrical nature of these movies. Anyone who has seen a play performed with different casts knows that the two productions are weird cousins, and this can make actors shine in their individual gifts. I would have loved to see Nicole Kidman devour this role, but Howard's youth and vulnerability really add to the tenuous nature of her power over Manderlay and its dark secrets.
I think it's lucky that von Trier is not an American. If an American director showed these images of oppression and slavery, he'd be reviled even moreso, especially if he were white. Americans demand "sensitivity" from movies about real issues, and violence and humiliation are really only safe subjects in horror films and art cinema. Sometimes it takes an outsider to show you what you look like to the world and remind you of the work you have left to do. This movie feels distinctly American in its woe and in it's heartsickness at good deeds gone not unpunished. Isn't change impossible? Haven't we given it our best shot already? "Manderlay" agrees with us-- but urges us to keep trying.
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