Movies Reviews Woodshock
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Woodshock is a movie which doesn’t seem to have much interest in being a movie. It revels in images and sensations—in gauzy filters and impeccably arranged curtains, in the satisfying sadness of smoking a joint alone in the bathroom while wasting water, or the dizzying way light plays through crystal—without much mind paid to story or character development or really even any context demanded by the difficult issues it raises. Woodshock is ostensibly about grief, but it’s also about assisted suicide—that is, were it about something. It’s not, not really, at least to the extent that it has pretty much nothing to say.

The film is the directorial debut of sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy (co-founders of ubiquitous millennial fashion imprint Rodarte), starring their good friend Kirsten Dunst and filmed in the redwood forests of Humboldt County, just outside of their hometown of Arcata. As such, it breathes with care and love, with the sort of indulgence that comes from creating something ornate for its own sake both with people and in a place you deeply care about. As a document of such relationships, Woodshock frequently stuns in its ability to capture ordinary loveliness, and cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg demonstrates an intuitive talent for photographing California’s far north coast, which, if you’ve ever been, is worth every ounce of lavishness. But bearing witness to such an intimate document is a different task entirely.

Dunst plays Theresa, a woman we meet as she dotingly helps her mother (Susan Traylor) commit suicide, dropping a few dollops of unidentified liquid into a bag of cannabis and then rolling a joint of the toxic leaves. (Actually, we first meet Theresa just before she assists her mother, in voiceover basically explaining what the title of the movie means, wandering aimlessly through the woods.) It’s the first sign of a film ignorantly disengaged from its audience: Why should we care about this sad, sad scene when we know absolutely next to nothing about these characters? Still, Theresa’s mother dies, and the audience settles in for paralysis.

Theresa and her eternally stupefied husband(?) Nick (Joe Cole, looking as bored as we feel) move into her mother’s now vacant house, which Theresa claims was a relocation requested by her dying parent. Nick works as a lumberjack—Theresa asks him, reflecting the Mulleavys’ uniformly tone-deaf dialogue, “Do you ever regret cutting it all down?”—while Theresa takes a bereavement leave from her tenure at a local medical marijuana dispensary, where she secretly helps clients commit suicide by giving them the same weed/liquid concoction she gave her mom. Owner of the dispensary is Keith (Pilou Asbæk, best known lately as Euron Greyjoy), an obnoxious lothario who’s obviously in love with Theresa and dresses like Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite.

In fact, Woodshock disposes with all sense of time: Flush with neon sterility, the dispensary feels modern, though recreational marijuana does not seem to be legal there yet (as it is in California); meanwhile modern technology is nowhere to be found, every character dressed in anachronistic styles infused with the Mulleavys’ penchant for layering and retro lace. Conceptually, one can understand the directors’ intent, maybe, to craft an ode to their home built on a sense of place totally devoid of nostalgia. Functionally, the lack of context is frustrating, because it’s one more lack in a film full of absence.

Theresa wiles away her ill-defined days feeling terrible about helping her mother die, haunting her already haunted house, pissing Nick off and pretending Keith isn’t an intolerable dirtbag. Upon returning to work at the dispensary—apparently to help a sick old man, Ed (Steph DuVall), to kill himself, because Keith isn’t capable of pouring a few drops of poison liquid into a bag of weed?—Theresa’s grief leads to a (ludicrous) case of mistaken indica, causing their friend Johnny (Jack Kilmer) to die (off screen) because he smoked the poison weed.

Further aggrieved, Theresa then decides to use the last of her poison sauce to roll a ream of joints for herself, which she proceeds to smoke over the course of a few days, sending her on a hallucinatory quest to… hallucinate? As Woodshock devolves into a quietly menacing drug trip, one can never be sure what’s real, and the Mulleavys undoubtedly wanted that to be the case. What’s never explained is why Theresa never dies from the stuff—is she some sort of wood nymph, a mythical creature of the forest?—or what she gains from the experience. Or what happens to Nick. Or what we’re even remotely supposed to take from all this narrative fuckery. A shockingly violent scene in the film’s third act is both so expected and so unearned that it can’t be real, because the alternative is pointlessness to the point of incompetence.

If the Mulleavys are against euthanasia, it’s impossible to tell, though Johnny’s death is represented as both a mistake and an inevitability. If the Mulleavys are against legalizing recreational cannabis (the lifeblood, in many ways, of the region they call home), there’s no sign that they think that Johnny deserved his fate, or that regular ole unadulterated weed impeded Theresa’s grieving, or that Keith’s dickheadishness has any parallels to his occupation. The only real sense of disdain comes in the form of Nick’s job cutting down Humboldt, which the Mulleavys would rather address with obvious symbolism than any sort of sense as to the actual environmental destruction and the moral gray area both Nick and Theresa navigate on a daily basis. Instead, Woodshock operates as a 100-minute vignette, steeped in visual flair but sans anything resembling a resolute story about people and the consequences of their everyday actions.

The directors do appear to have an almost spiritual grasp of their star’s (and good friend’s) body, clothing Dunst but also knowing how to hold her in frame to suggest an internal world so much more fertile than what they’ve constructed within their script. Composer Peter Raeburn, too, is magnanimous with his overtures, pushing the Mulleavys’ images out of stasis and into thornier emotional thickets. Still, little of the directors’ choices make sense. Case in point: Theresa spends much of her time alone and in the bathroom, in the bath even, but she never removes her expensive-looking undergarments, which feels weird and gross to comment upon were it not so jarring and did it not occupy so much of the movie.

Who is like that—and who is this movie for? The only answer is the saddest, because it’s just another question: This movie is for the Mulleavys—can anyone else watch this and think otherwise?

Directors: Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy
Writers: Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Pilou Asbæk, Joe Cole, Jack Kilmer, Steph DuVall
Release Date: September 22, 2017

Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.