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Wisconsin Death Trip

1 rating: 4.0
A movie directed by James Marsh

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Tags: Movies
Director: James Marsh
Genre: Drama, History
Release Date: 2000.3.9 (Denmark)
1 review about Wisconsin Death Trip

Jackson County Blues

  • Jul 24, 2011
  • by
Having achieved cult notoriety since its first publication in 1973, Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip plumbed the nineteenth century's abject, turbulent final decade in Black Water Falls, Wisconsin and other locations in Jackson County, utilizing a wealth of morbid glass plate negatives and disturbing press clippings of historical record to chronicle a period in the state's history that was largely miserable. Unemployment, disease, madness, alcoholism, religious fervor and brutal crime resulting from all of these factors was expertly exhibited in Lesy's harrowing presentation.

Wisconsin Death Trip never needed a film adaptation, and it could be said that the book is ill-suited to the medium. So, it's a surprise to see that James Marsh has produced a picture of considerable interest from the book's content. Unfortunately, the film relies on too few of the many extraordinary photographs that Charles Van Schaick shot during the period (which serve as the entirety of the book's illustrations), relying instead on re-enactments. Fortunately, these scenes are, despite a few exceptions, ably performed and beautifully rendered in lush black-and-white. Many violent, depraved and tragic events, as well as a few of fleeting delight, are portrayed and arranged in a seasonal order, and each season's sequence is concluded with vibrant color footage of Black River Falls a century later, depicting a comparatively subdued 1990s locale.

Those familiar with the book know what kind of misery they'll be witness to, though the execution of these re-enactments are often surprising for the initiated. Just as the hyperbole of the book is in some portions nearly ludicrous, so too do some scenes flirt with melodrama; the whispered voice-over of an insane asylum clerk crosses the line from creepiness into silliness. However, the pace of this film is imbued with such remarkable momentum; Marsh has arranged many of the book's most exceptional incidents in a way that retains the viewer's attention.

The greatest achievements of this project are to be found in its cinematography and editing. Without its gorgeous photography and fastidiously organized sequences, Wisconsin Death Trip would be intriguing, but nowhere near so engaging to the eye. Holm's narration is very fine; he affects the dialect of the period capably, and as a result, his own voice is barely recognizable.

The proceedings are scored by the music of Bach, Offenbach, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Pärt and one of this reviewer's favorite pieces, the In Paradisum of Fauré's Requiem, which closes the film.

Home Vision has produced quite a few very good DVD editions, and this is one of them. Its audiovisual quality throughout is excellent. The main menu is uncluttered and easy to navigate, its background a montage of shots from the film. Scene selections are comprised of two title lists.

One commentary track voiced by Marsh and cinematographer Egil Bryld is of minor interest. While these two haven't sparking personalities and the track is hardly entertaining, their exhaustive discussion of every aspect pertinent to the film's production yields plenty of information.

Four brief deleted scenes (the first two of which are narrated by someone other than Holm) are included among the special features. Considering their brevity and quality, it seems odd that they were omitted from the film's succinct final cut.

A featurette entitled Midwestern Gothic is of moderate quality. Interviews with cast and crew and on-set footage provide an insider glimpse of the movie's production, but there's really little to see here that isn't thoroughly explained in the commentary track.

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