Dir. James Marsh, 1999, USA/UK, 76 mins
Cast: Ian Holm, Jo Vukelich, Jeffrey Golden, Marilyn White
Review by Paul Mallaghan
Ah Wisconsin, The Dairy State. Clean fresh air and farm-girls running through meadows carrying newly churned butter to spread on home-baked bread. Mom’s apple pie cools on the window ledge as kids splash in the river. As the area’s promotional video says: “Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence.”
Listen closer though and you might hear the sound of a woman trying to scratch her way out of her own coffin deep underground. You might smell the smoke from the dynamite that blew a farmer’s head off. You might see a mother drown her children one by one in a lake.
Wisconsin Death Trip, James Marsh’s haunting, shocking and strangely beautiful docu-drama, takes as its inspiration the cult 1973 book of the same name by Michael Lesy. Lesy uncovered a cache of news reports and macabre still images from the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Between the years 1890-1900, the town was seized by an incredible epidemic of madness, suicide, diphtheria, murder, adultery, violence and drug abuse. The stories are so odd, so utterly disturbing and so bleak that they are almost surreal in their number and severity.
Made under the banner of the BBC’s Arena series, Wisconsin Death Trip is hard to pin down. With no conventional narrative, Marsh presents us instead with a series of ghoulish stories, narrated by Ian Holm sounding like cross between Garrison Keillor and the Radio Four shipping news. Holm’s honeyed wry voice guides us through tales of degradation, desperation and disaster. A 13-year-old murderer-outlaw kills an old Norwegian man and shoots at the police. A wandering European Opera star inexplicably ends up penniless and insane in the bowels of Black River Falls. Suicides pepper the film like full stops in a paragraph. Diphtheria decimates the child population and we are told that the living are too distressed to bury their dead. Only one story recurs throughout the film. Jo Vukelich plays Mary Sweeney, a retired teacher, cocaine addict and obsessive window smasher. She claims to have travelled all over the state, causing $50,000 of damage in broken glass. She takes cocaine to “quiet her nose”. It is this bizarre, hilarious, but ultimately tragic and upsetting story that sets the tone for the film.
Marsh says of the stories: “The starting point was definitely photographic. Start with an image, a single image, and then move – a lot of long tracking shots, to keep a sense of the still image moving.” The result is that the film feels like we are witnessing the events as depicted by animated ghosts. The cinematography is intoxicating. Slowing the camera down to 30 frames per second, and shooting in stark monochrome, Marsh (and DOP Eigil Bryld) create a fluid and eerie effect that captures the essence of the original photographs. It produces the same kind of dark lyrical fairytale quality as Charles Laughton’s Night of The Hunter. Combined with a score as diverse as Brahms and DJ Shadow, the effect is hypnotic.
Interspersed with these tales of grim survival are colour footage sections of modern day Black River Falls. Initially, these appear like a documentary version of the opening shots of David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet – strange old faces and waving children, brass bands shuffling down the middle of a wide empty street. Marsh then introduces voice-overs that question the serenity of this town that evolved from a turbulent past. Police reports of severed heads discovered in bushes and an unidentified local woman stating “Ask almost anyone here, and they’ll tell you they’re depressed.” play over the images. Marsh has said of his intentions behind the film:
“The first choice I made (was) not to try and explain the social-political-cultural history of anything. The stories are based on a respect for these individual tragedies and disasters. If the film lacks one thing, it’s a governing idea on that level–but it would have been a travesty.” Despite this, Marsh seems to be suggesting that there is not such a huge difference between the current residents of small-town America and their brutal, desperate forebears.
Marsh leaves us with the uneasy feeling that this pre-twentieth century cauldron of superstition, violence and insanity isn’t just a long lost relic from primitive ancestors, but something that shapes and pervades modern America . Perhaps in amongst the beauty pageants and swap-meets is a jilted lover ready to exact revenge, a homicidal pre-teen or a woman who will stop at nothing to hurl a brick through every window in town. Marsh asks us to look beneath the veneer of calm and find the stewing chaos beneath.