Part two of Lars Von Trier's "Land of Opportunity" trilogy follows his Dogville with a rather timely tale that still won't play well with audiences who'll probably find this glacial look at oppression and racism to be too abstract.
Manderlay is set in 1930's Alabama on a plantation as Grace is played by the considerably younger Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village) and her father by a more youthful Willem Dafoe.
Grace has set her mind on liberating the plantation where life apparently has been isolated from the result of the American Civil War. Von Trier's screenplay has Grace helped by her papa's armed minions. The whites will be indenture servants and the ex-slaves will have a new beginning according to Grace's plan. How it all unfolds, in a more lean running time than Dogville, ignites tensions on a cultural, philosophical, and personal scale.
Those familiar with Dogville and perservered through it, won't be distracted by the unconventional production and stage-like discourse. Von Trier's sky is darkened and the ground/floor is white. Areas of light denote scene selection and characters are illuminated often in close-up with handheld digital cameras.
This aching riff on a changing world finds its humanity in Grace's personal touch with the former slaves, like the sagely, equivocal one played by Danny Glover, and a muscular, aloof man acted by Isaach De Bankole. The bitterness and confusion throughout can be balanced by offbeat wit as the cast taps into the intensity of Von Trier's wrenching, if controversial wisdom.
Maybe Manderlay seems more diagrammatic and lacks the cumulative impact of Dogville, there is truth within the parameters of people dealing with ideologies, especially that of a new democracy. Some of the returning cast like Chloe Sevigny and Jeremy Davies have little to offer, but Howard is able to carry off a difficult part (following Nicole Kidman) in a way that snaps through something scary and sometimes funny. The moral implications brought up may turn off some, but comes off less didactic and daring in the uncertainties that exist in a world that hopes for equality.