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With: Ian Holm (narrator), Jo Vukelich, Marilyn White, Jeff Golden
Written by: James Marsh, based on the book by Michael Lesy
Directed by: James Marsh
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 76
Date: 03/19/2013

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I love it when films mix genres. The other day on TV, I saw part of The Valley of Gwangi, which combined a dinosaur flick with a western (cowboys wrangling pterodactyls).

More daringly, a few recent films-- such as Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster -- have mixed documentary reality and fiction. Wisconsin Death Trip. which opens at the Castro today for an eight-day run, follows loosely in that vein.

Based on the 1973 book by Michael Lesy, the film tells bizarre, tragic and sometimes violent news articles tha came out of a small town called Black River Falls, Wisc., in the final days of the 19th century.

Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings) narrates the grim black-and-white tales. The Associated Press-style stories are illustrated with vintage photographs or modern-day actors in period dress.

Anytime anyone gets shipped off to the insane asylum for his or her crimes, Holm, in a sinister whisper, hisses the information at us.

Some tales, like the one about the 13-year-old boy who stole his father's gun, ran way with his little brother, shot and killed an old man and lived in the guy's house, are pretty gruesome. But writer/director James Marsh intercuts these dark stories with funny and sad ones, so we never get bogged down with one emotion for too long. (The film runs only 76 minutes.)

The best story, and one that had members of the audience cheering, is that of Mary Sweeny, the window smasher. Sweeny (played by Jo Vukelich) returns to the film's narrative again and again, smashing more and more windows, racking up more and more in costly damages. On her off days, she was a schoolteacher who used cocaine for relaxation purposes.

The film also tells the sad story of retired opera star Pauline L'Allemand (Marilyn White), who moves to Black River Falls and puts on shows for her neighbors. But her performances were so mediocre and her belongings so old, folks began to suspect that she wasn't who she said she was.

Marsh also includes color footage of contemporary Wisconsin, focusing on small-town shenanigans like parades, beauty pageants and the Star-Spangled Banner being sung in an old-folks home.

But though the film implies that the seeds of darkness still bloom in Black River Falls, the new sequences cast an interesting perspective on the old ones, making them seem particularly real and poignant, and not just simple examples of gallows humor.

Wisconsin Death Trip is like a visit to a museum that houses flickering silent films and black-and-white photos curled at the edges. Though we feel safe looking in on a bizarre past, our own mortality comes into play. The movie is a remarkable and unusual achievement.

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