Woodshock is like a bad head trip – fuzzy, interminable, with fleeting moments of supposed clarity that ultimately amount to nothing. We follow along as the film floats its way through sequences both literal and dreamlike, attempting to hypnotize but instead making us go cross-eyed. It’s not so much about immersion as it is projection and presentation – like a cinematic expose at an art installation. Within that context, it occasionally works – the film is impressively mounted and quite pleasant to look at – but any purpose beyond the superficial beauty seemingly exists only in the filmmakers’ heads.
Those filmmakers are the Mulleavy sisters, Kate and Laura, who are making their directorial debut. Their filmography otherwise consists of only a few Costume Department credits, and indeed, the sisters are most notable for co-founding prestigious fashion line Rodarte. It makes sense, then, that Woodshock would be such a visual experience. The Mulleavys develop their visual style before our eyes, constantly experimenting from one shot to the next, working in soft focus to create an elevated feel and then throwing in a kitchen sink of tricks and tweaks, from lens flares to reflections within reflections to superimpositions to abstract cuts. It’s a veritable diorama of light and image, though one that never breaks free of its own artistic experimentation and into a realm of affecting emotion.
Kirsten Dunst headlines the film as Theresa, who is in the midst of all-consuming grief in the wake of her mother’s death. We briefly glimpse the end stages of the mother’s presumed cancer battle, at which point Theresa administers a form of marijuana, though eventually we realize it’s been laced with something far more potent. One could consider this drug to be the film’s villain, likely an unintended moralistic position for a film that really just wants to be a heady deep dive into fractured paranoia. Theresa works at a dispensary and therefore possesses the tools to tweak the substances in one manner or another; as she struggles through the grief cycle, she flirts with the notion of extreme self-medication.
So progresses Woodshock’s psychotropic odyssey, alternating sequences of presumed reality with the increased imposition of drug-induced hysteria. Eventually there is no clear line between what’s real and what’s part of a fever dream, although the degree to which any one moment in the film is on the level is up for debate. The Mulleavys’ clear intent is to constantly shift the ground beneath our feet, offsetting our perspective as Theresa drifts deeper into psychosis, and they manage to achieve the desired effect without any of the intended emotional impact. Woodshock becomes an ongoing cascade of fascinating images that wear thin once we realize they are girded in neither emotion nor concept. Viewers are merely witnesses to its artistry rather than participants in its themes.
Dunst has said this was the toughest role of her career, a sentiment that may well be true, although it’s hard to distinguish on the basis of the film itself, since its purposely fragmented assembly never allows for the character to evolve into something tangible. She exhibits a churning variety of emotions from one moment to the next, but always feels as though she is the film’s top-billed performance artist as opposed to central character. That, in the end, is Woodshock’s clearest failure: its characters, themes, and emotions are in service to its visual palette and not the other way around.