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Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)
Tragic, melancholic, twisted and yet completely entertaining.
'Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence.' This is a pitch for the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. If by any chance you've already accepted this seemingly ordinarily little exaggeration as the truth, then its time you saw a melancholic little documentary called Wisconsin Death Trip.
This is a film which details the events that occurred in Black River Falls during the 1890s and is the director James Marsh's take on the 1970s literary cult classic of the same name, written by Michael Lesy. It seems that the whole town was besieged by fits of suicide, murder, lunacy and several inexplicable and bizarre events that could have been plucked cleanly from an Edward Gory poem. The grim and dark character of this strange little town and its inhabitants are communicated through photographs taken at the time and newspaper reports. The photos are connected to starkly beautiful black and white recreations of the odd goings-on of Black River Falls. Ian Holm narrates the film in a haunting and sometimes blackly comic manner, and a few records from the local insane asylum are whispered disturbingly, telling us about the many inhabitants who were committed there. The recreations are shot with dazzling fluidity, all are stunning to watch and every single one shocks or horrifies to an enthralling degree.
Like Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, this twisted tale takes place over several seasons and the other-worldly events just keep on happening; from a farmer who blew his own head off with dynamite to a 63 year old-14 year old paedophilliac marriage, they seem never-ending as the depressing Wisconsin Winter looms over the horizon. There are certain characters who keep reappearing throughout the film such as the 13 year old who shot an old man for fun and then participated in a western style chase and gun fight with a posse, and the has-been opera singer, Pauline L'Allemand, who moved to Black River Falls and slowly went mad, hearing voices from the spirit world and ended up in the Mendota Asylum for the Insane.
It is the morbid fascination that resides in some of us which makes us want to watch this to the end, to see just how tantalizingly strange the events in this town can get. The macabre style is pulled off with perfection; it is often grisly and melancholic to watch and yet I was fascinated by it and soaked up every moment. Wisconsin Death Trip fails, however in trying to convince us that Black River Falls hasn't changed since the 1890s. Its attempts (in colour, rather than black and white like the rest of the film), are rather forced and unsatisfying. But the blank, placid faces of the old people of the modern day town are certainly reminiscent of the photos taken back at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps the sheer number of the events at the time makes the film a little unbelievable, but it is the photos which remind us that these events actually took place and aid in bringing home the Gothic and demented atmosphere of the whole tragic tale.
The truth is: I was horrified and engrossed in the story of this freakish town and the maniacs who resided there. Then, after thinking about it, I realized that the crimes of passion, suicides and gun violence of our so-called 'modern society' were happening over a century ago. I believe that this is one of the most significant points James Marsh was trying to put across.
However, there are still some out and out undeniably weird happenings that took place in Black River Falls which would leave us utterly aghast if we saw them in the present day. When viewing, be sure to look out for the Polish girl who set fire to numerous buildings because she was 'lonely and homesick and needed some excitement.' and especially Mary Sweeney, with her window smashing antics.