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Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip
Home Vision
1999 / B&W & Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 76 min. / Street Date February 24, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Jo Vukelich, Jeffrey Golden, Marilyn White, John Schneider, Ian Holm
Eigil Bryld
Art Direction Carol Hirschi
Film Editor Jinx Godfrey
Costume Designer Ellen Kozak
Makeup artist Christopher Russo
Written by James Marsh from a book by Michael Lesy
Produced by Nancy Abraham, Carl Hirschi, James Marsh, Sheila Nevins, Maureen A. Ryan, Anthony Wall
Directed by
James Marsh

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This bizarre faux-documentary uses expressive B&W photography to create an ominous, quiet mood that rivals that of many classic horror films. It's taken from a 1973 book that chronicled the many appalling stories that came out of the Black River Falls area of Wisconsin between 1890 and 1900. It was a period of economic depression, misery and hopelessness. All the mines closed and many of the hardy Norwegian settlers were forced to leave.

In the harsh weather conditions, hunger and desperation led to madness, with fathers killing families, mothers killing their children, and couples committing suicide. A disentery epidemic claimed many babies but a general feeling of despair and hopelessness seems to have done even worse damage. Many dependents were abandoned by their parents. Husbands disappeared, mothers left their children on snowy church doorsteps.

The general chaos is accompanied by the soothing narration of Ian Holm, who reads the original newspaper accounts in all their dry desperation. A few stories play out in serialized form. A madwoman roams the towns, smashing glass at every opportunity. A European opera star (Marilyn White) arrives penniless, having bought a swamp shack she thought was near a wealthy resort. She and her son go mad, tangling with the law and eating livestock feed to survive. Mirroring modern anxiety crimes, two adolescent boys embark on a meaningless killing spree until hunted down by a mounted posse. Many subplots end in the asylum, where the records dutifully report yet another person brought in because of dangerous delusions.

Wisconsin Death Trip would be a morbid collection of grim anecdotes if it weren't for its consistently arresting style. The deliberate pace offers a constantly-changing variety of visuals that evoke the 19th century setting. Many real photographs of the period are used, showing the rural Wisconsin folk in all their plainness, and recording the heartbreaking sight of babies and children in their coffins.

Even better are Death Trip's elaborate, carefully filmed recreations. The costuming, makeup and especially casting (from rural locals as well) are superb, and director James Marsh has a terrific eye for composition. Although all of the scenes are static or very slow, they're beautifully conceived as stand-alone images. The B&W captures the feeling of the old photographs, and Marsh knows how to make the action in front of his camera remote but compelling. We see plenty of murders and suicides, but mostly remember the blank faces of the ordinary people committing them. Frequently recurring are images of a newspaperman (Jeffrey Golden) typing out yet another appalling story about a drowning in the creek or a murder-suicide, or the shadow of an asylum clerk (John Schneider) registering the particulars about another new admitee.

Marsh uses slow tracking shots and a slight slow motion in almost every shot. This further endistances the material and softens it with a contemplative air; the show casts an impressive spell. Sometimes we wonder if we're meant to laugh at the grim absurdity, but the story plays completely straight. We see lots of people standing still and many dead bodies, and have to contemplate the emotions that accompanied dressing little children, putting them into little coffins and posing them with flowers for the camera.

Wisconsin Death Trip is fascinating but ultimately lacks something, some spark. It is somewhat disappointing that no real thesis emerges, and perhaps that's a good thing. Seeing all these proper Norwegians go crazy and do horrible things gives us the likely idea that our current diet of media-fed hysteria (crime, killings, etc.) is just the overselling of 'bad news' that goes on all the time, everywhere and in every community. Black River Falls was only a part of a general depression in the 1890s, and perhaps there was a similar flood of grisly news from other parts of the country; maybe the consistent Wisconsin reportage makes the difference. The contrast between perception (God-fearing decent Nordic immigrants) and reality (depression, misery and madness) in this clean-cut corner of America is what works - there don't seem to be any deep racial or monetary evils to complicate the situation.

The period recreations are interspersed with frequent selected views of Black River Falls in the present day. These are in color and are authentic recordings of local parades, football games and church activities. Although no boom town, the area seems to be getting along fairly well. We wonder if Wisconsin Death Trip means to tell us that the misery and horror must be here as well, and all around us. I hope not, as it's not that useful of a message. The film also has no particular political bent, or any desire to say all this murderous horror is American in nature. Mary Sweeney, the window breaker (Jo Vukelich) smiles darkly, but she's just a nut and no harbinger of dissent or any meaningful antisocial ideas.

I prefer to think of this weird little pseudo-docu as a tone poem, a dark rumination. The music by Debussy and Fauré give the proceedings a gothic tone. We feel like we're walking quietly through a haunted graveyard, reading cryptic messages on one macabre gravestone after another.

Home Vision's DVD of Wisconsin Death Trip is a beauty. The enhanced image spreads beautifully across the wide screen, and we'd never guess that it's video shot at 30 fps (a PAL camera perhaps, then played back at 24fps?). The haunting music and soothingly creepy sound design are beautifully rendered as well.

For extras, there's a documentary on the filming that shows English director Marsh (previously an assistant editor) trying to explain his tough aesthetic aims. His coproducers talk about the casting, and some of the local actors come forward to cheerily say things like, "I play an imbecile." The BTS shots of actions like trains moving and windows breaking show the contrast between indifferent filming of an event, and the visual magic we see in the completed picture.

There are also a number of deleted scenes, without Ian Holm's narration.

Director Marsh and cameraman Eigel Bryld provide a running audio commentary; writer Greil Marcus encapsulizes the appeal of this mysterious little work of art in brief but expressive liner notes.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Wisconsin Death Trip rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, making-of featurette, deleted scenes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 16, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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