Wisconsin Death Trip review

Headlining the National Film Theatre's The Other British Cinema season, Wisconsin Death Trip was originally made for the BBC Arena documentary slot, but fully warrants a big-screen release, not least for its lyrical black-and-white cinematography.

Adapted from Michael Lesy's book, which itself drew heavily on archival still photographs, James Marsh's film recounts the truly bizarre tale of the farming community of Black River Falls, Wisconsin during the 1890s. Faced with a crippling economic depression, the town's residents went berserk: murder, suicide and insanity rates soared, businesses collapsed, cases of arson, vandalism and religious possession multiplied, while a diphtheria epidemic devastated the infant population...

Marsh doesn't seek to explain the macabre events, which were all recorded in the town newspaper. Instead, cleverly deploying narrator Ian Holm's sly voice-over, he re-enacts individual stories in silently acted, fractionally slowed-down scenes. It makes for an eerily haunting, enigmatic journey: civilisation has rarely seemed so fragile.

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