Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Not Rated  |   |  Drama, History  |  9 March 2000 (Denmark)
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Ratings: 6.7/10 from 1,167 users   Metascore: 40/100
Reviews: 32 user | 23 critic | 6 from Metacritic.com

Wisconsin Death Trip is an intimate, shocking and sometimes hilarious account of the disasters that befell one small town in Wisconsin during the final decade of the 19th century. The film ... See full summary »



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Credited cast:
Narrator (voice)
Jeffrey Golden ...
Editor (as Jeff Golden)
Jo Vukelich ...
Mary Sweeney
Marcus Monroe ...
Young Anderson
Marilyn White ...
Pauline L'Allemand
John Schneider ...
Asylum Clerk / Whispering Voice
John Baltes ...
Raeleen McMillion ...
Crying Woman
Krista Grambow ...
Mourning Woman
Clay Anton ...
Eloping Couple (male)
Bobbie Jo Westphal ...
Eloping Couple (female)
Scott Hulbert ...
Zeke Dasho ...
Edgar L'Allemand
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Kathryn Anderson ...
Mrs. Larson
Kevin Anderson ...
Larson Child


Wisconsin Death Trip is an intimate, shocking and sometimes hilarious account of the disasters that befell one small town in Wisconsin during the final decade of the 19th century. The film is inspired by Michael Lesy's book of the same name which was first published in 1973. Lesy discovered a striking archive of black and white photographs in the town of Black River Falls dating from the 1890s and married a selection of these images to extracts from the town's newspaper from the same decade. The effect was surprising and disturbing. The town of Black River Falls seems gripped by some peculiar malaise and the weekly news is dominated by bizarre tales of madness, eccentricity and violence amongst the local population. Suicide and murder are commonplace. People in the town are haunted by ghosts, possessed by devils and terrorized by teenage outlaws and arsonists. Like the book, the film is constructed entirely from authentic news reports from the Black River Falls' newspaper with ... Written by MAR

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Drama | History


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Release Date:

9 March 2000 (Denmark)  »

Also Known As:

Kuoleman loukko  »

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1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


Broadcast in the UK as part of the BBC's prestigious Arena (1975) series. See more »


Written by Robert Schumann
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User Reviews

Remarkable, stunning, beautiful, unique, enigmatic, problematic.
31 August 2000 | by (dublin, ireland) – See all my reviews

It is easy to be dazzled by 'Wisconsin Death Trip''s shimmering beauty. It is unlikely that you will see a more beautiful film all year - the sharp monochrome which creates an eerie dream out of history; the breathtaking fluidity of the camera, including some stunning, Angelopolous-like sequence shots; the extraordinary compositions that at once mummifies the subjects, traps them in their time like the still photographs the film is based on, and allows them to burst shockingly free from it. For its brief running time, there is not one ugly or inept sequence, and many in which you will gasp 'wow'. This was made for TELEVISION?! Needless to say, there is nothing like it in the cinema right now.

But is all this gorgeousness appropriate to the subject matter, the life and times of a small Wisconsin town, Black River Falls, in the 1890s, only 40 years old, deeply religious, composed of different races, with no troubles from the Indians, that in one decade seemed to burst into a frenzy of febrile anarchy, spewing out random murders, diseases, economic depressions, suicides, infanticides, paedophiliac marriages, persistant window-breakers, faded opera singers and, especially lunatics.

The film comprises a series of articles written by the town's English newspaper editor, divided into the four seasons. The stories are an unrelenting catalogue of collective insanity and horror, a complete breakdown of social order - the only time a sheriff is mentioned he is leading a posse hunting a young boy. Interspersed with the sensationalism are reports of the odd attempts at civic propriety, temprance meetings, church warnings against promiscuity etc., but these attempts at social control are tainted by the surrounding madness, and sound as beserk in their optimism as Canute or Quixote.

This is quiet American town life as Surrealist nightmare, a real-life David Lynch, a topsy-turvy inversion of what we expect from such communities. It's not like this is some kind of metaphor for what was going underneath repressive propriety - THIS REALLY HAPPENED. Why? There are a number of tacit answers - the economic failure of the American dream resulting in psychological despair (the first case of insanity is an unemployed suicide); the failure of the American melting-pot ideal, the different nationalities divided, unable to assimilate into Americans, their social rupture displaced into psychic rupture; the end of the frontier myth, the idea that there are no more Western open spaces to conquer, a feeling of being hemmed in, confined, hence, perhaps all the lunatic asylum inmates; the supernatural, God, nature - many townsfolk hear voices, fear witchcraft, and there are many shots of nature, piercing sunlight disrupting the calm, speeding, shadowy clouds, that seem pathologised.

The problem with the film is its ahistoricism. The events, like the town itself, exist in a vacuum, an aberration. Every story seems connected with some kind of tragedy or fear, but surely the editor's paper was not filled with this stuff all the time on every page; people would surely notice something was seriously wrong. The inexorable horrors become so profuse, so excessive, that they become comic, not because it is too much to bear, but because it seems so implausible. The filmmakers seem to think so too, and the stylised recreations take on a comic element. The film is least successful when it attempts to connect the events of the 1890s with our own fin de siecle - modern day Black River Falls, with its mad old ladies singing Star Spangled Banner, can only seem insane contiguous with its ancestors' dementia, and, in case we miss the point, the slow tracks give an ominous, oneiric feel. As with today, 1890s children with guns go on killing sprees; there are problems with drugs, authority, aimless youth, dysfunctional families etc. The madness never ends.

The stories, filtered through the consistent sensibility of the editor, are told in terse, literal, seemingly objective language. But the editor is both male and English-Protestant - he can't help informing his plain words with ideology. His reaction to aberrant women, for example, is typical of the times. They are not conscious rebels against a repressive society, they are invariably hysterical and mad. What is remarkable, though, is how the madness transcends gender, class, age, ethnic boundaries, producing a monstrous parody of the melting-pot ideal, a nation connected by insanity. In this catalogue of death and disease, the one life-force is ironically a window-breaker, a highly educated former teacher who is possessed by the urge to smash every window she comes across. This may be destructive, but she is both an image of freedom and a pattern asserted on the randomness; life in a landscape of corpses.

The film raises interesting questions about the documentary form, questions about the truth (the newspaper is a 'journal of record'), about history. The film's structure is based literally on documents, which are read out; there are interviews with real people - surely it's a documentary? But the content is largely a series of recreated scenes - these scenes are not recorded as they happen, which might be a definition of a documentary. Yet 'the Thin Blue Line', winner of the best documentary Oscar, was full of recreations. But, if we call this a documentary, than so is, say, 'The Diary of Anne Frank', starring Shelley Winters. These questions are important - documentary sets itself up on a higher ethical register with some glorified access to truth - we must not let this assumption go unquestioned.

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