In calm, measured tones a plummy British voice intones the virtues of the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin at the end of the 19th centurythe fine fishing, the pure water, the way of life it engenders. Its like listening to the beginning of a fairy tale told by a favorite uncle. Its also a speech that will be repeated, word for word and tone for tone at the end of WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, though the words will by then have taken on a radically different meaning and the quiet, almost whispered narration will seem less confiding than eerie. Inspired by the notorious book of the same name, it recounts the descent into madness of a small town in the American midwest, a place long extolled as the cradle and keeper of solid American values. As you watch, you will be able to hear the sonic boom of your paradigm being shifted.
The narration of past events, read by Ian Holm, is taken word for word from the local newspaper of the time, and his reading, as much of the words themselves, create the irony and unexpected humor of the words. Its a place of seasonal madness, sudden violence, and eccentricity born of both. Marsh structures his film around the seasons, giving a sense of the rhythms of life in that long ago time.
His black and white cinematography, using long exposures to mimic the photography of the time, re-enacts axe murders, serial window smashing, and the other desperate and insane acts of a desperate time and place that seems just a little too close to home, where ever that home may be. Intercut with re-creations of the past is footage of contemporary Black River Falls and its denizens, clips in color that is so raw it hurts the eye after the shadowy images that came before. Here townspeople recount their versions of ancient scandals and pose proudly during their own seasonal rituals, Halloween and football homecoming rites and rituals that are not a danger to themselves or others, but to a stranger, odd beyond comprehension. You cant help but wonder, as you watch the descendents of madness, what lurks just behind those smiling faces and peaceful streets.
Marsh, a Brit using words written by another Brit, does what no native-born American can do, show us ourselves as others see us. He points up the peculiarity of customs to which we dont give a second thought, whether it be the institution of the homecoming queen or the unquestioned presence of guns and violence that lurks beneath our veneer of civility.
WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is a fever dream of a film that is haunting, capable of jarring moments of revelation about the timelessness of human nature, most of it disturbingly depressing and yet all grotesquely fascinating.