Manderlay Movie Review

You should be very suspicious of anyone who owns Dogville and no other Lars Von Trier film. It's a ruse, a hoax, and a ploy, a way for that pretentious NYU philosophy major with the vintage Members Only jacket to impress that really cool, semi-punk girl with the cool Husker Du pin and prove to her that his brain is much more worthy than anyone else's. To like Dogville alone is to like the idea of Von Trier and to think you're special for picking up all the philosophical ideas behind it, along with name-checking Brecht. You're not, and Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and The Element of Crime are much better films. Expect a copy of his latest film, Manderlay, Dogville's sequel, to be placed on that NYU kid's DVD shelf right next to Dogville, allowing for more philosophical meandering but this time, on racism and white, liberal guilt.

Picking up after the violent ending of Dogville, we catch up with Grace Mulligan (Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Nicole Kidman) as her and her father (Willem Dafoe, replacing James Caan) end up at a small southern plantation named Manderlay. A young, black woman runs up to the car, yelling and crying about how they are going to whip Timothy (Isaach De Bankole). Stopping the car immediately and running onto the plantation, against her father's wishes, she finds that Manderlay is a plantation that still employs slavery. Seeing this as a grave injustice, Grace takes a few of her father's goons and starts running the plantation more like a business, making the white owners work while the slaves are given freedom to go about as they please, receiving shares in the crop's revenue. The slaves are led by Willhelm (Danny Glover), an older man who used to serve Mam (Lauren Bacall), the head of the plantation. As things progress, a dust storm, a child's death, the execution of an elder and Grace's slowly unraveling lust for Timothy start raising the issue that maybe things were better as they were.

Manderlay tastes like cough syrup; we may not like what we see but we really need to see it. The film's target is the white liberals of America who think their guilt and humility are so great, that they know what's best for other races. (The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as we all know.) Since this is a monster subject and his opinion on race is so dense, the film lacks the focus that Dogville had. However, in the hands of a man who tends to deal strictly in dense, uncompromising ideals, you have to stand in awe of a film that says a lot of things we're not supposed to hear. Howard does good work filling Kidman's shoes, except now there are more control issues at hand then there were in Dogville. Howard knows how to deal with them, because she understands that Grace is just a bundle of good intentions without much consideration for the effects of her thoughts. The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Bankole, who gives a brutal realism to the sexual attraction between Timothy and Grace.

The big boos come as the credits roll, with David Bowie's "Young Americans" playing over pictures of Emmett Till and other slavery-era atrocities. Many will mistake the Brechtian style and the emotional outbursts for pretentious filmmaking. It's not; it's film for people who are interested in new opinions and interpretations and aren't scared to be put in an uncomfortable place. And no, just because it's heavy on ideas and controversial doesn't make it Von Trier's best film. If that's what you think, the closest Salvation Army is on the corner of Bedford and 7th, and the DVD will be out in June.

Reviewed at the 2005 New York Film Festival.

Stop or my mom will shoot.


Comments

Manderlay Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 2005

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