Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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HotDocs 2011:  WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP Review
Can a place be evil?  Can it's bad mojo be transferred upon an unsuspecting settler or to a wide population of lifetime residents?  This question is asked in a baroque and highly unconventional manner in Wisconsin Death Trip.  The film is getting the retrospective treatment here at the HotDocs Film Festival in Toronto and midnight is definitely the fuzzy witching hour to best experience it.

Before James Marsh (justly) won the Oscar for 2009's Man on Wire, or in the same year, directed the stand-out chapter in the excellent Red Riding Trilogy, he made this Maddin-esque, Lynch-ian (this is film-nerd shorthand for poetic, feverish, surreal and weird, for those keeping score at home) documentary on the madness in the air of the midwest. Filming stylized re-creations of the multitude of tragedies in 19th century Wisconsin contrasted (occasionally) with modern footage.  Eisenstein-ian connections are bound to be made.  It all adds up to ask the question, to paraphrase Bob Hope, "Hey, what's up with all those crazy deaths in Wisconsin?" (alternatively, "How about that Wisconsin Death Trip?!")

If I am being a bit facetious (dare-say pretentious) in the above paragraph it is for two reasons.  One it is due to the fact that it is hard to put into words just how mesmerizing the film is, and I'm not sure I am inclined to even try to verbalize just how good this film is.  Second is that the film, as dark as it is at re-creating suicides, murders, petty acts of vandalism, sexual deviance and the like for our viewing pleasure, there is in no small way, a lot of gallows humour and pitch black comedy at play in the execution (so to speak.)  Couple that with the dulcet tones of Sir Ian Holm on voice-over narration (step aside Werner Herzog and Morgan Freeman, make room for Holm) who lulls you to sleep with the nastiest bedtime story ever told.  It is available on DVD and will soon be going in my collection somewhere between Titicut Follies, My Winnipeg and The Bridge.    

Marsh has a new documentary here at HotDocs about a chimpanzee "Nim Chimpsky" (good name there!) who was put through the well intentioned / road to hell ringer in being raised as human to communicate and behave as a human.  Can you say, high expectations for this one.  The word 'unsettling' has been tossed around, and considering this directors filmography up until this point, is not surprising.

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James MarshMichael LesyIan HolmJeffrey GoldenJo VukelichMarcus MonroeDramaHistory
Dustin ChangMay 2, 2011 2:16 PM

"Maddin-esque, Lynch-ian (this is film-nerd shorthand for poetic, feverish, surreal and weird for those keeping score at home)" Haha. Very true. Saw it a while ago. A great doc. I think the title of Marsh's new film here is called Project Nim. Sounds pretty promising.

jcaplesMay 3, 2011 11:07 PM

A bit sloppy not mentioning the doc's source, Michael Lesy's infamous book of the same name.

Kurt HalfyardMay 4, 2011 1:41 PM

Fair enough, I probably should have mentioned it. ... But in my own own defense (rationalization), this is a complete work of cinema, you simply get something completely different out of the film than you would of the book. I doubt the book has such a sense of humour about itself.