The grief and anguish of loss takes many mental and physical forms, in the new psychological melodrama ‘Woodshock’. The exquisite feature film debut of visionary fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy , their film is a hypnotic exploration of isolation, paranoia, and grief that exists in a dream-world all on its own. Kirsten Dunst stars as Theresa, a haunted young woman spiraling in the wake of profound loss, torn between her fractured emotional state and the reality-altering effects of a potent cannabinoid drug that has got her uncertain about the things that she sees and feels. Immersive, spellbinding, and sublime, ‘Woodshock’ transcends genre to become a singularly thrilling cinematic experience that marks the arrival of the Mulleavy siblings as a major new voice in film. ‘Woodshock’ is rated R for drug use, adult language and a scene of violence.
We’ve all been around that pothead at a party who has had too many tokes on the old wisdom weed and decides to tell a story. For whatever reason, his story could last a minute, five minutes, or in some cases even ten minutes if he is committed to enough bullshit and payoffs in laughs from a crowd who are just trying to be nice to him. Under no circumstances however, can anyone be nice to a guy of this description for 95 minutes, and that’s ultimately what my experience with ‘Woodshock’ gave me. The Mulleavy’s certainly know what is captivatingly original about their visual spectrum to this film, but as screenwriters they have plenty to learn about entertainment value that lends no favors to their debut featurette. For all of its dabs into visual and literal intoxication, the film feels like it is jumbled into a million pieces, never having the glue or the right hands behind it to getting its narrative base put back together to make a cohesive whole. Sadly, the most obvious fact that I will take away from this film is that Kirsten Dunst has a fantastic body, a statement that I feel disgusting for mentioning in a theatrical review, but none the less relevant when compared to how little else I took away from this sloppy disaster.
The dialogue in this film comes at a minimal offering, choosing instead to visually depict the kind of emotions and post-traumatic traits that come with losing the most important person in one’s life. I don’t personally have a problem with this particular direction. Most notably ‘A Ghost Story’ this year succeeded at visually carrying the double load in progression for the narrative, and never struggled once. At this perspective, I was riveted early on during the first act, looking forward to what theologies and spins on the afterlife for those still living that these sisters indulged in. Sadly that movie never materialized, and what we do get in return is a barrage of mind-numbingly vague sequences, as well as quick-cut edits that at least unintentionally pay homage to the kind of editing that Aronofsky was doing in ‘Requiem For A Dream’. The film’s pacing stalls out repeatedly, making the entirety of the second act feel like a chore that feels like it is paying zero dividends to the kind of progression that this film needs in getting us ready for a gut-punching final act. That too is wasted away in the hazy cloud that engulfs this movie whole, closing out with some last minute twists that intend to resonate, but fail to break the rough exterior of anger that I felt from being mislead one time too many throughout this picture.
Another big negative for me comes in the neglect of character exposition that not only makes these characters feel foreign, but also gives the supporting cast no weight of importance to the film’s lasting memory. There’s no question that this is a one woman show of sorts, with most of the attention being paid to that of Dunst’s Theresa, but as a character she feels too underwhelming and quite self-pitying to ever bask in the sadness and emotional distress that she is going through. So much of her actions and movements are overly repetitive that I often found myself wondering if the film intentionally repeated scenes from earlier, but instead just decided to portray the same result, but this time with slightly different consequences. And because so much of the imagery that we are seeing is being played out by the drug use in that of our central protagonist, there’s a haze about the film’s cerebrum perspective that fails to give any kind of insight into Theresa’s rumored past that the film only hints at and fails to ever fully materialize. It makes for a focus in presentation that doesn’t feel interested in exploring the effects that Theresa’s shaky behavior has on others, yet doesn’t give us a lot of reasons in excitement to ever stay committed to her perspective.
As for performances, I will choose to only speak about Dunst because frankly everyone else is just afterthoughts in the prime focus of screen time and dialogue. It feels like we’re at that point in the career of Kirsten’s where she is beginning to explore in her choice of roles. Most recently, her portrayal in ‘The Beguiled’ felt like the right kind of motherly hands to carefully cradle the film’s often conventional approach. For ‘Woodshock’, she’s asked to be depended upon again, and this time harbors an enigmatic delivery in Theresa that articulately conveys the imprisonment of grief. There are times when you’re not sure whether to laugh, cry, or stay paralyzed from her volcanic offering that constantly builds itself in every scene. Most definitely in the third act, we see the biggest parallel in her previously reserved embodiment, and the anger that multiplies in her eyes in the later scenes brought the only kind of emotional feeling that I related to during the film, saving me temporarily from the depths of boredom that clouded this film entirely.
Without a doubt though, my favorite aspect to the film and one that keeps it above water from being one of the more dreadful theatrical experiences of the year for me is in the film’s visual compass that declares the marriage of art and fashion like only siblings of this magnitude can do. The editing can be choppy at times, but the grainy spectrum when combined with off-center framing gives the film an unnatural home video kind of feel to it that I found vividly appealing. In my opinion, it feels like much of this movie was shot on reeled film, a form of filming that sadly is limited in its uses during the digital age, and evidence of such seems apparent especially during these psychological scenes that mirror that of Theresa’s past and present. It’s presented in a manner that doesn’t feel tampered or manipulated with in digital encoding, but natural in how appealing the very unappealing vision of it comes across. It’s just too perfect to be unnatural, and presents some beautifully hypnotizing trances that keeps us in its daydream.
THE VERDICT – The buzz of two reputable sisters like the Mulleavy’s should’ve been enough to carry it through a dreary and dreamy trip through bereavement, but their debut effort stumbles at nearly every narrative miscue and patience-testing minute that ruins the high. Like most trips, afterwards you’re hungry for something of substance, and sadly you won’t find it in this clouded and convoluted fog that blurs the line of some pretty cutting edge photography. Dunst is riveting, but this is one Mary Jane that she might want to distance herself from.