Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Danny DISLIKEKen Burns is one of my favorite documentarians. What he can accomplish with some old documents, a few sepia pictures, and a perfectly cast voice over puts legions of cable TV creators to shame. Burns's "The Civil War" is, for the record, the only movie I don't own because I know just how often I would watch it, and, as much free time as I currently have, sinking six hours into such a film in repeated circumstances seems destructive to the way I live my life.

I bring Burns up as a way to cleanse my palate before I begin discussing Wisconsin Death Trip.

Set in the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, located in the center-western part of the state (and not the northern part like the movie states for some unknown reason), the movie depicts the tumultuous year of 1890. Through reenactments and a rather stolid narration by Ian Holm that's taken directly from news headlines, we witness the murders, crimes, and odd goings-ons that occurred in that year. The movie also flashes forward to 1998 in order to compare and contrast the two time periods, with the older periods filmed in black and white and the newer footage in color.

Visually the film looks like a cinematographer's wet dream; highly contrasted black and white with every image framed for maximum impact. Each shot is composed to convey as much melodrama as possible, and it becomes so repetitive and silly that it becomes hard to watch. The style is so over the top, in fact, I was almost sure that I was watching a mockumentary rather than a serious film; if you've ever wanted to see a film completely fail on a visual level by being shot 'too well', you would do good to start here.

The film progresses from Winter to Spring etc etc. Each segment depicts a number of headlines and oddities. Two boys murder a farmer, a woman drowns her children, another woman believes she's Jesus, and so on. Since this is all presented as if someone is reading obituaries over the county community theater recreating the scenes, we get very little of a plot line.

The only person who makes multiple appearances is Mary Sweeney, the proclaimed Wisconsin Window Smasher. She is often arrested for her one woman quest to end the scourge of windows across the great state. I can imagine this making a funny story in some manner; here it is just another dour moment in a series of such moments.

The actors don't help, though without any lines, they're all at the director's mercy, and his mercy seems to mostly involve looking glum. Holm doesn't do much with the old newsprint he's reading from, and the only other voice actor who reads notes from a local asylum does so with with a humorously awful whisper.

Strangely, the director has also chosen to forgo any manner of background or basic information about the town; what was it like before this strange year? What's it like now, outside of a few talking heads? But then, as I stated before, the bare minimum information the movie does present us with is wrong, and that's something as fucking simple as geography.

Since all we have is the dialogue, the images, and the music, it should be noted that the music infuses the images with even more over-the-top melodrama; often times an operatic mesh of chants and strings, each moment sounds like it belongs more in a slow motion scene in a bad action movie. Instead, here you have 90 odd minutes of it, and it gets old very, very quickly.

Wisconsin Death Trip seems like a pretty good example of how not to make an involving documentary. I would love to see a movie about Black River Falls done with a modicum of wit. If it weren't time for lunch, I might well do it myself; I've got Wikipedia right here, and the five minutes I spent reading the article on the town is probably more time than the makers of this movie spent altogether.

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Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

This film (IMDB) is currently available on Netflix Instant.

Directed by James Marsh
Starring Ian Holm

Posted by Danny

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  1. Youre not the general blog writer, man. You certainly have something important to contribute to the World Wide Web. Such a special blog. I’ll return for more.

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