Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Just how much substance is required to support a film’s aesthetic? The answer, of course, varies from viewer to viewer and it is a preference one should already have in mind before seeing the directorial debut of sisters and fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Visually distinct, Woodshock commits to a hypnotic, Seventies-esque vibe that many will feel comes at the expense of narrative clarity.
Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) has just lost her mother, helping to ease her suffering via assisted suicide. It was done using a cannabinoid substance provided by Keith (Pilou Asbæk), her boss at a medical marijuana dispensary. Depressed and isolated in her grief, neglectful of and neglected by her boyfriend (Joe Cole), Theresa fixates on a momentary hallucination experienced when lighting the cigarette for her mother. When she starts experimenting with the drug herself reality and delusion bleed together in frightening ways.
Woodshock defies a more detailed explanation in the same way that it’s impossible to describe a dream and have it make as much sense to the listener as it did to the dreamer while asleep. This is a film meant to be experienced, not just viewed. Every frame looks as though it passed through an Instagram filter, a heavy, sepia-toned haze that went out of style several years ago. The natural world features heavily in both reality and delusion: spiders crawling through a bouquet, wildflowers atop a cake or floating in a bath, the ominous old-growth forest that edges in on Theresa’s house. Many frames could double as advertisements for Urban Outfitters…and therein lies the primary shortcoming of Woodshock.
For all of their aesthetic achievements—and this is a film overflowing with gorgeous imagery—the Mulleavy sisters apparently forgot to provide any underlying support to accompany their visual bonanza. Is Woodshock a movie about grief? Guilt? Moral ambiguity? It’s a discussion rendered uninteresting thanks to paper thin characters further hampered by a lack of context. As Theresa’s addiction grows and the surreal actions and images pile up, it’s difficult to pinpoint the magnitude of her unraveling because we know nothing about who she was before her mother’s death. Whatever hints at a broader meaning the script contains are so subtle they border on nonexistent. Stripped of all its stylings, Woodshock comes up painfully short on soul.
The role of Theresa is a hefty burden. Dialogue is thinly dispersed and multiple scenes can pass with no more than a word or two spoken. Ms. Dunst delves into the role with a sense of earnest, in large part responsible for the expectation of deeper meaning that sadly never materializes. It’s a choice some might call brave and she’s talented enough to find some success with it. Asbæk’s pot-dealing boss is too uneven, played with a strange mixture of menace and concern. The score by Peter Raeburn favors tone over melody and pairs well with the color-conscious cinematography of Peter Flinckenberg.
There are undoubtedly viewers with whom Woodshock will succeed, although they likely won’t amount to very many in total. This is a pleasing instance of truth in advertising for A24, whose trailers sometimes sell a slightly different film than they’re releasing (see: The Witch and It Comes at Night, both excellent movies with questionable marketing choices). If Woodshock’s lone trailer elicited excitement then don’t drag your feet and be sure to jump on its limited release. But if you were left wondering if there was any pith beneath the pretty surface, then rest assured: what you see might not always be real, but it is all you’re going to get.