Wisconsin Death Trip

Wicked (Wisconsin) Wednesday Pt. 9: Wisconsin Death Trip


If you’re already familiar with Wisconsin Death Trip, you’ll know that this is a different film from the past eight weeks. That’s because this isn’t a movie, but a documentary based on the 1973 book of photographs collected by Michael Lesy. It might seem a strange choice for a day usually dedicated to horror. Yes, while this is a documentary and not a slasher film, there are still aspects to make your skin crawl: murder, madness and insanity.

The 1999 documentary studies the area of Black River Falls in the western area of Wisconsin between 1890 and 1900. A time of mass immigration to the young state. Many were looking for a successful life after leaving their home countries – but most would not find it in the untamed wilderness.

British filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire, The Theory of Everything) makes his debut here in a beautiful way. In Wisconsin Death Trip, Marsh paints a picture of thetime using dramatizations of many of the original photos by Charles Van Schaik and the words of local English newspaper editor Frank Cooper. The documentary shows off some of the most stunning stretches of scenery in the state (though I doubt that it was filmed in Black River Falls). All of the beauty stands as a harsh contrast to the story about to unfold.

Despite its lovely setting, don’t mistake this for a lovely walk through the past. This is a documentary called Wisconsin Death Trip, after all. Many tragedies struck the area of that time – all of it catapulting from a time where the mines began to shut down and men were out of work. The brutal snow and cold of Wisconsin proving to be too much for many European immigrants.

After the collapse of the local bank, many men go crazy, a few commit suicide. The horrors of Black River Falls is a relentless spiral of misery, slowly revealing the disturbing history of the town. The black and white scenes bring the photographs from the past to life and bring their stories with them. Marsh then aims to connect this past to the town’s present in colour. It’s a place of still full of religion, arson and whispers of terrors like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein. The present day hardly seems compelling enough, and it almost seems like a jump in logic in many respects.

But Marsh keeps piling on the horrors. At times this only builds the feeling of shock, but other times it feels like a real job to keep caring about what exactly is going on. At least authenticity is never called into question – the large amount of information provided makes sure of that. The documentary was all filmed at historical locations in Wisconsin and all the actors involved were cast from the state as well. But much of this is what you’d expect from a factual film.

It goes without saying that this is the first film I have covered so far that has been nominated for a (prestigious) award. Wisconsin Death Trip is effective. The melancholy feeling is sad and haunting. The use of both black and white with colour scenes is works to convey the story being told: a sort of community resting in two periods of time.

Unfortunately the documentary, while beautiful, can be a bit of a struggle to get through at only 76 minutes. I first watched this film a year ago and napped for most of it. The second watching was a little bit more easy to cope with, but the pacing sometimes creates a distant feeling. In many ways this works to emulate the feeling of isolation and desperation, but other times it can be a bit difficult to connect to the subject.

Wisconsin Death Trip is worth a watch, but it is Lesy’s novel that is truly worth perusing. Both are a stark picture of dreams gone very, very wrong.