Had Manderlay, the second (and last) entry in Lars von Trier's aborted trilogy about America, been released before Dogville instead of after, it might very well have looked like a masterpiece. After all, its premise of a Southern town that continues slavery decades after abolition is ripe even for cinema's reigning provocateur, and the film's allegorical connections to the Iraqi occupation and Hurricane Katrina give it added potency. And von Trier's Brechtian conceit—a mostly bare soundstage, demarcated by chalk outlines—would still have that crucial element of surprise, instead of signaling a director who's merely spinning his creative wheels. Von Trier has always relied on audacious concepts (the rear projection on Zentropa, the Björk realist anti-musical Dancer In The Dark, etc.) to frame his ideas, but Manderlay loses in power what it lacks in novelty, even though it's more relevant than anything the year is likely to bring.
Another big reason Manderlay should have come first: Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the older Nicole Kidman as the high-minded Grace, but the continuity between the two incarnations is completely lost. The Grace character comes out of the Dogville experience wounded and cynical, wise to the hypocrisies of the world, but on the road from the Rockies to the Deep South, Howard's Grace has apparently undergone some magical transformation that's restored her innocence and idealism. When Howard and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, taking over for James Caan) pass through the Alabama town of the title, she's appalled to discover that its black residents are still being kept as slaves. With a little help from her father's muscle, Howard quickly remedies the situation by overrunning the plantation owner (Lauren Bacall) and liberating the slaves from "Mam's Law," the governing bible that has oppressed them for all these years. She tries to promote a democratic system, but the new social order comes with its own set of flaws, and the slave mentality lingers.
Let's see… foreign invaders occupy a totalitarian state, impose democracy where it has never flowered, and discover that its people are anything but grateful for being "liberated." Sound familiar? In underlining its point on the perils of nation-building, Manderlay may be a more inflammatory rebuke of American policy than Dogville: Von Trier basically implies that the slave system, while brutal, oppressive, and undignifying, may be preferable to the perverted, hypocritical form of democracy that replaces it. The promise of freedom and equal opportunity for blacks, in von Trier's mind, was (and is) a lie that the system perpetuates; slavery offers no such fantasies, and therefore no such hypocrisies. It's an extremely cynical perspective, enforced by some disappointingly turgid melodrama, but keep in mind, this movie was made before an almost uniformly poor and black population was left to rot in New Orleans floodwaters. Even at his worst, von Trier can still strike a nerve.