My husband is a dedicated Wisconsonian who hails from Baraboo and still makes his living there despite the fact that we reside near Chicago. He cannot shed his Dairy State roots and he does not desire to. Unlike the stereotypical man from the Land of Cheese, though, he is not into football at all. What fascinates Dirk about his home state are the myriad small towns and the stories that they contain.
For a couple of years now he has been suggesting that I watch this movie called "Wisconsin Death Trip" with him. I thought it was a joke--just a made up title or some ridiculous take off on "Death Race 2000" or some other inane film of that genre. But this weekend he actually brought it home from what we loving call "The Boo," so I found myself watching what had to be one of the most unusual 75 minutes of filmmaking I have ever seen.
To refer to "Wisconsin Death Trip" as a movie is both to undersell it and to oversell it at the same time. It is writer/director James Marsh's documentary/homage to one Wisconsin town, Black River Falls, and the chaos that a review of a decade of newspaper stories revealed to be lying beneath its seemingly normal facade. Using newspaper photographs along with cinematic recreations, Marsh invites us into a town that has lost itself. In place of the heart that ought to be beating there has arisen a pandemonium of suicides, murders, and insanity, tales of ghosts, witches, and devils, and the harsh reality of deadly disease.
In the relentless presentation of these stories, one after another after another, March succeeds in giving the impression of Black River Falls as a town under siege of some kind of 1890's version of whatever it was that unleashed "The Crazies." A young boy steals a rifle and kills a neighboring farmer for fun, then runs for days from a posse, randomly taking pot shots at them as well. A husband decides his wife is cheating on him, lies in wait for her and, finding her with companions, shoots them all. A woman drowns her children and sits, calmly waiting, at the riverside. A girl gets her kicks by burning down houses. An insane school teacher makes her way across the state shattering glass windows everywhere she goes. Every second person in the town seems to be killing him or herself for one reason or another. And through it all, there looms the oddly rushed, whispered voice of the local asylum's doctor, filling out the reports that will commit these people for life.
Narrated by Ian Holm with accustomed gravitas, the movie is filmed in black and white with unexpected moments of sheer beauty in the Wisconsin scenery and other moments that seek to take the viewer into the broken mindsets of the people of Black River Falls. A nighttime snowfall is seen from a low angle, lit so that the snowflakes come toward the viewer like ghosts and then vanish. Glass windows smash from every possible angle, their sudden sounds shattering silence throughout the film. Other shots are simply devastating. such as a child's dead body being prepared for its coffin in a bird's-eye shot ending with the enclosing of the lid. First time filmmaker Marsh shows subtlety when he needs it throughout this odd compilation of scenes, allowing his subject matter to carry the film.
The few continuous pieces--the story of the school teacher or the boy killer, for example, or the one about an opera singer who, impoverished as her career has ended, finds herself in Black River Falls--glue the film together, but for the most part it remains the bits and pieces, the random newspaper stories that it was when author Michael Lesy found them and pieced them together for the book that Marsh used as the basis for this film. And at first this movie might be dismissed as a bit of odd and slightly disturbing froth. But if you allow it to simmer for a bit, "Wisconsin Death Trip" has a way of getting under the bones. This is 75 minutes that will stay with you for quite a while.