‘Wisconsin Death Trip’

Hell’s Hamlet

‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ revives some troubling memories


In roughly a million movies, amnesiac characters try desperately to remember some urgent, forgotten matter. Most recently, Kurt Russell in Vanilla Sky and Joe Pantoliano in Memento played figures trying to tease reluctant memories awake in their films’ leading characters. The popularity of this kind of mystery echoes a national problem: We in the United States have a chronic case of historical amnesia.

One attempt to wake us up from it is found in Michael Lesy’s fascinating 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip, which chronicles the wave of late 19th-century crimes and mortality in the vicinity of Black River Falls, a small town in Wisconsin. Reading this book could give you the impression that the hamlet was built on an 1890s version of a Hellmouth, a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The residents of Black River Falls were recent immigrants who came to mine and farm in the newly opened territory. But the land was too scrubby to live off. The banks, railroads, and mines were subject to sudden failure, inflamed by the depression of the 1890s. Even by the standards of the Norwegian immigrants, the winters were cruel. The pressure crushed the settlers through hard work and bankruptcy. Thus the local history, recorded in a small weekly newspaper, is a record of depression, suicide, disease, and murder.

James Marsh’s film version of Wisconsin Death Trip is a 76-minute-long condensation of the book–and the movie is a total success.

Marsh deftly captures the mood of the threatening wilderness. His bare-bones budget complements the rawness of frontier life, which he studies with the velvety cinematic obsession of a David Lynch. Here, a nonprofessional cast silently reenact the old crimes. Marsh divides the film into seasons and connects his almanac of doom with recurring characters.

Wisconsin Death Trip finds a charismatic antiheroine in Mary Sweeney (played fiercely by Jo Vukelich), a traveling madwoman who loved to snort coke and smash windows. In the account of Mrs. Larson (Molly Anderson), who drowned her three children, the film presents a parallel to Susan Smith, sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for driving the car that contained her sleeping children into a lake. And there’s even a decadent celebrity: Pauline L’Allemand (Marilyn White), a noted opera star who retreated to the wilds of Wisconsin–and then into madness.

Actor Ian Holm, most recently seen as the ring-jonesing hobbit Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, narrates the casebook. Aside from his narration, Wisconsin Death Trip is mute, accompanied by a beautifully eclectic soundtrack that ranges from Debussy to Finnish folk songs to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”

Marsh goes a step farther than the book by visiting Black River Falls today. He seems to wonder: How could a past so infamous be interred beneath this peaceful small town? He observes children playing, the high-school homecoming game and parade, the old people half-dead in the retirement home.

Naturally, some critics have accused Marsh of patronizing the town, especially by filming nursing home residents drowsing through a visiting glee club’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But isn’t this a perfect metaphor for how Black Rock Falls’ memory sleeps? And though the film doesn’t mention this, Black River Falls isn’t a backwater today; it’s heavily touristed, visited in the summer by Chicago area hikers and mountain bikers. What we see today may look a little stodgy, but it’s a triumph over a lurid, agonizing past.

In its way, Wisconsin Death Trip is an optimistic film. Today’s young people are supposed to be lost, addicted to drugs and television, a generation of nihilist lawbreakers whose misdeeds testify to the lapse of family values. Marsh’s film, set in a time of thoroughly religious, strong families, is alive with murders, drug abuse, and teen crime. By forgetting the trouble we once had, we exaggerate the trouble we have today.

‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ opens Friday, Feb. 8, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. For details, see or call 415.454.1222.

From the February 7-13, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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