It begins innocuously enough in the film's prologue which states, "It is safe to assume that nowhere in the length and breadth of this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls." Then we hear what sounds like a gunshot but is in fact a camera flash, next we see the dead body of a little girl being put in a casket, then the credits come up, and next we see the awkward image from the ground looking straight up at a pair of dangling feet of a man who has hung himself. At this point it's obvious the film will take its title literally.
Directed by James Marsh, the film is an adaptation of sorts of a cult book of the same title by Michael Lesy. The book is a rather ingenious work of history, using authentic news reports from the newspaper of record in Black River Falls and including actual photographs of the people in the region taken by Charles Van Schaick. It's an eerie book mainly because most of the stories are about insanity, suicide, and death during the depression of the 1890s, which hit Wisconsin pretty hard. There is hardly a lighthearted news clipping among the bunch, although there is an underriding - and perhaps unintentional - sardonic humor laced throughout.
The film captures the book's tone very well largely by recreating the events it recalls for us, using a voice-over narration and shots of many of the original photos. Some of the more remarkable and tragic events are recreated, including two young boys who go on a killing spree, a woman who drowns her sons in a river, and numerous shootings by jealous lovers. Yet it sprinkles in "lighter" news items such as a girl who burned down a farmhouse because she was lonely, a woman who goes about the county breaking windows, and a washed-up opera singer who moved to the region because she was led to believe it was an upscale resort.
Wisconsin Death Trip is a morbid film, but it is not entirely a downer mainly because of the artful way it is shot, with stunning black and white cinematography by Eigil Bryld, scored with remarkable music by Debussy (as well as John Cale and DJ Shadow), and skillfully put together by editor Jinx Godfrey, who blends the many elements of the photos and recreates scenes with style and ease. There's also a narrative voice-over by Ian Holm, who brings a deep authoritative voice to the film. The actors too help the film feel authentic mainly because they are unknown.
The film keeps an intellectual distance, drawing us in with its somewhat experimental cinematic approach even when it depresses us. The film's narrative structure is split into the four seasons, and it attempts to present the tragic stories across gender lines as well as a spectrum from youth to old age. Fortunately, director Marsh chooses to juxtapose the 1890s with color footage and somewhat lightweight items in 1990s Black River Falls.
The film is a mere 76 minutes long and worth a look not only for what it says about the small community of Black River Falls circa 1890 but for what it ultimately says about all people everywhere in all periods of time. One only need look in newspapers today to see that not a whole lot has changed.
The DVD released by Home Vision Entertainment has some excellent extras including an informative commentary track by James Marsh and Eigil Bryld, four deleted scenes, and a 30-minute making-of documentary, which helps give a better perspective not only on the technical merits of the film but on the film's themes and exactly what it is that the filmmakers were trying to achieve.
Run time: 76 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 9th March 2000
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Fresh: 18 Rotten: 6
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: James Marsh
Producer: Maureen A. Ryan, James Marsh
Screenwriter: James Marsh
Starring: Ian Holm as Narrator (voice)