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Manderlay photoManderlay photo courtesy IFC Films

Danish writer/director Lars von Trier, best known in the states for engaging yet cinematically daring melodramas Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, gave the world a bit of a shock in 2003 with Dogville. Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, a pretty young thing on the lam, is taken in by a seemingly kind town only to be raped and thrown into slavery. By using David Bowie���s ���Young Americans��� during the end credits over ill-sitting images of my-country-tis-o-thee, von Trier delivered the message (in a not-so-subtle way) that Americans defile the gifts given to them.

Manderlay poster
(IFC Films)
Rated: NR
starstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site

It���s a great film ��� three hours long and not a boring minute. Trier knows how to make an amazing film, as anyone who has seen Breaking the Waves can attest. Anti-American? Eh, maybe a bit, but more social commentary with a dash of nihilism for good measure.

Manderlay, the second film in von Trier���s ���U.S.A ��� Land of Opportunities��� trilogy keeps the same aesthetics and is equally as shocking as Dogville, but less poignant as its themes get lost in the director���s shock tactics. While still a good unsettling yarn, Manderlay is also unfulfilling.

Travelling across country after the incident at Dogville, Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, spawn of Ron) and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe) stop by the gated plantation Manderlay to find that the residents of the plantation have no idea slavery has been abolished. The blacks are still planting cotton and getting whipped by the overseers.

In an obvious Iraq war analogy, Grace uses her gang of well-armed gangsters to easily depose the weakened tyrant Mam (Lauren Bacall) and enforce ���democracy��� on the newly freed slaves, even rounding them up to attend lectures on freedom. But Grace���s idealism over practicality mindset has dire consequences, as her lack of foresight leads to famine and unrest among blacks, who weren���t all that thrilled about freedom in the first place.

Howard is a suitable replacement for Kidman; she���s preachy to the point of annoyance, but it works well for the idealistic Grace. Is she trying to figure out whether she really wants to help the inhabitants of Manderlay or is using this exercise for personal salvation, penance for the ���white guilt��� she feels? Howard shines in exploring Grace���s sexual curiosity toward the Africans, particularly her erotic interest in proud Timothy (Isaach De Bankol?�), an African Munci supposedly descended from the blood of kings.

Von Trier visually contrasts idealism and reality by switching between gorgeous zooming overhead shots that clearly show the layout of Manderlay and shaky handheld camerawork on the ground. As in Dogville, von Trier uses a soundstage with minimal props for a set: running water and doors are displayed by sound effects, workers plow nonexistent fields, and buildings are drawn by chalk outlines, complete with informative labels. The lighting is awkward and hazy, obscuring figures, while the lack of props opens enclosed spaces and let us peer where we normally couldn���t.

But in winding down, the film loses focus. The pacing lags and the timeline makes no sense. While Dogville was straightforward in its themes, Manderlay gets muddled in its Iraq parallels versus the psychological effects of oppression versus black and white relationships. Scenes such as when the former overseers are forced to put on black makeup and serve the former slaves serve no purpose except to set the audience at unease. The resolution reeks of misanthropy. Von Trier loses his grip in trying to one-up Dogville, stomping all over his points and our senses.

Still, Manderlay is jarring and eerily watchable. Von Trier proves once again he���s an excellent filmmaker, even with the most unpleasant subject material. Perhaps once he gets off this ���shock and awe��� kick, he���ll make another excellent flick. Washington, to be released in 2007, concludes the ���U.S.A.��� trilogy.

STARRING: Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankol?�, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Davies, Lauren Bacall, Chlo?� Sevigny, and Jean-Marc Barr
GENRE(S): Drama
WRITTEN BY: Lars von Trier
DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier
RELEASE DATE: Theatrical: January 27, 2006
RUNNING TIME: 139 minutes, Color
ORIGIN: Denmark / Sweden / Netherlands / France / Germany / USA
LANGUAGE(S): English