Wisconsin Death Trip
USA, 1999. Unrated. 76 minutes.

Cast: John Baltes, Nathan Butchart, Zeke Dasho, Krista Grambow, Raeleen McMillion, Marcus Monroe, Jo Vukelich, Marilyn White, Ian Holm
Writers: James Marsh, Michael Lesy (book)

Cinematographer: Eigil Bryld

Music: DJ Shadow

Producer: Maureen Ryan

Director: James Marsh


Grade: B- Review by Jeff Vorndam

I f the students portrayed in The Blair Witch Project had any real talent for visualizing the legends they documented, they might have made something like Wisconsin Death Trip, a stylish, darkly humorous glimpse at a disturbingly violent year in the town of Black River Falls in the 1890s. At 76 minutes, the film is only a glimpse, though, and feels more like an exercise in style than a serious attempt to uncover any truth or relation to the present day. The film is based on Michael Lesy's book of photographs and news articles and feels like hundred-year-old pictures stirred to life. Dozens of shots in the film are framed portrait-style, with people standing stone still in the foreground as Ian Holm reads from archived newspaper reports in a droll drone. It's all shot in black-and-white and often in slow-motion, which would make the imagery creepy were it provided any context. As it is, it's like flipping through a picture book.

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The brunt of the film re-enacts the grisly murders and bizarre occurrences that swarmed over Black River Falls in one year. It breaks down the progression of events into seasons, settling on the familiar life-to-death cycle of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter to mark the increasing deluge of madness. A litany of shootings, hangings, stabbings, and drownings is showcased alongside some other more eccentric acts such as those of Mary Sweeney, the Wisconsin Window Smasher, who claims to have destroyed $50,000 worth of glass. Throughout, Ian Holm reads aloud from the news articles of the day in a quaint and reserved tone that provides a gallows humor to accompany the horrific re-enactments. The language in the news clippings is dry and understated, so at odds with today's "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of hyperbole and sensationalism. The humor dulls the edge of the violence. This isn't an unsettling film, despite its subject matter. If anything, it's a roundabout joke on the people of Wisconsin, a state that seems to breed serial killers, notably Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein. "What is it about these people that causes this behavior?" the film asks.

Wisconsin Death Trip attempts to link the horrors of the past to the current inhabitants of Black River Falls in several present-day scenes shot in color. Ominous shots of town elders gaping vacantly at the camera suggest that a faculty for mental disturbance still thrives in the community. It's a cheap shot, and I can't imagine that any of the people photographed are pleased by the unflattering connotation. The point is driven home by a passage from one of the news articles framing either end of the film. It's a promotional blurb about the town championing the locale as the healthiest, most glorious, best place to live in the country. At the beginning of the film we can take it at face value, but when we hear it again at the end of the movie it's clearly a joke. This is ultimately what the film itself is, a coolly expressive joke with scant insight.

Review © April 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Hands On Productions. All Rights Reserved.

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