Wisconsin Death Trip is an extended, narrated collage of vintage photographs and re-enactments of people and events that took place in Wisconsin over the final decade of the 19th century. These events roll onwards, in loose chronological order. Everything the viewer witnesses is death-related in one way or another. Epidemics, insanity, severe depressions, love-fuelled murders and suicides, James Marsh retells a simultaneously harrowing and hilarious tale of pure, unyielding madness. It is also a monumentally beautiful movie, with sharp monochrome sequences and breath-taking compositions.
The film relies on the town’s newspaper editor, an English writer and his recordings in a local newspaper. Marsh documents the disturbing happenings as they had been reported at the time, and according to Michael Lesy’s book of the same name. What the viewer is exposed to over the film’s running time, is a nightmare reminiscent of some of the darker works of Lars Von Trier or David Lynch. The narrator, Ian Holm, convinces as a sort of observer, situated among the township, but outside and safe from the madness, commenting and taking notes. Holm’s narration turns the journalist’s writing into words. His voice is placed over fantastic black and white sequences of violence and disturbance, and alongside the lifeless, stone-like portraits of the town’s residents.
These images and photographs turn into the stories that carry the film forward – the viewers are taken through winter, spring, summer and autumn (it is fascinating to observe how each season influences the inhabitants’ behaviour) and every story makes a significant fragment of the documentary’s whole. Marsh effectively shows a historical phenomenon through his work. The unfolding almost feels like an example of the domino effect, by which one individual’s slip into madness results in another’s and another’s.
Throughout, there is no coherent explanation as to how what happened actually happened. One can only speculate; the harsh climate, the lack of identity (the town was made up of a large variety of European immigrants), loneliness and isolation, the disappearing promise of “America”. The film builds itself around a few truly notable occurrences – among them a 13-year-old German boy who guns down a man and then inhabits his home, a world-famous opera singer who makes a mysterious appearance in the town and goes mad, and a young arsonist girl. And filling in the gaps are a range of mysterious details – an old man who kills himself in fear of getting old, and a man who shoots a woman and them himself when a proposal doesn’t go according to plan.
The stillness of the photographs – which make up the core of the movie – is haunting. It is hard to tell whether the eyes of the inhabitants captured through the lens display the madness seen in the sequences built around them. Whatever the case, the photographs provide the remedy for Marsh’s blackly humorous take on the events. A level of reality is introduced into Wisconsin Death Trip. The viewer is reminded that, though fascinating, the study isn’t entertaining, but tragic and tormenting.
Wisconsin Death Trip at IMDb
Wisconsin Death Trip at Wikipedia
Wisconsin Death Trip (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
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