Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) – James Marsh

James Marsh proves yet again that he is the modern master of the documentary as he weaves fascinating stories, grisly, humorous, and undeniably human in this doc version of the book of the same name by Micheal Lesy.

It’s also my next film as i dig into the What Else to Watch list of DK Canada’s The Movie Book following their recommended screening of Man On Wire.

This fascinating documentary which features narration by the wonderful Ian Holm reading actual newspaper clippings from the paper of record from the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Over a period of ten ears, from 1890 to 1900, the paper documented horrible occurrences, madness, and life in this small town.

There are some reenactments, and interviews with some of the current town’s residents (as well as modern news reports that document some troubling and some fun plaguing the modren era as well), but the large part of the film is composed of the clippings (with Holm’s perfect narration) and period photographs taken by the town’s photographer, Charles van Schaick.

The pictures are stunning, and give us a glimpse into another time and life, as disease, madness, and the growth, death, and life of small towns and cities populated the map.


I found it to be a captivating tale, knowing that my own family history comes from a small town. The facets of humanity are a microcosm in this film, and while there is some beauty and joy, the amount of pain, and horrors delivered on this one small town, just in the space of a decade, is a little heartbreaking, and perhaps a sad commentary on our society.

But is that because grief, and violence sell more papers than feel good stories, or are we just naturally bad people?

Nonetheless, Marsh’s documentary serves as an entertaining slice-of-life film that lets us see how life has (and hasn’t changed) in a century in one small town.

I like how Marsh doles out his images, and his story, adapting Lesy’s 1973 book into an enjoyable documentary. He is quckly becoming my favorite documentary filmmaker, just as Stephen Ambrose remains my favorite historian.

If you’re looking for something a little different tonight, this one may very well fit the bill. Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of DK Books’ The Movie Book and discover this title for yourself, or perhaps find a new to you classic to watch tonight!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s