Part art project, part woozy waking dream and part Repulsion for the edible-consuming crowd, Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s psychological thriller-cum-canabisized character study follows Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), a troubled young women working at a marijuana dispensary in Eureka, California. Our Sad-Eyed Lady of the Redwoods is known for an illicit, under-the-counter strain of euthanasia-friendly product; we we meet her, she’s administering her special recipe to her terminally ill mother, gently and humanely helping Mom shuffle off this mortal coil. Her husband (Joe Cole), a lumberjack, is distant and barely present; her boss (Game of Thrones‘ sexy pirate Pilou Asbæk) is a bit of a douchebag. (Both men frequent a blue-collar bar that has a jukebox stocked with Television and Suicide albums, because, well, it’s very much that kind of movie.)
You can tell that Theresa harbors some conflicted feelings about the service she provides, useful as it is; it’s also obvious that some sort of psychic unraveling is either looming on the horizon or already in progress. Still, when a local suffering from late-stage cancer requests a bag of her poisoned pot, she preps a batch and bites her tongue. The gent picks up his medicine, thanks her kindly. A few days later, he returns to the shop and says that her death kush is defective. Then Theresa’s boss finds out that a mutual acquaintance of theirs, who also recently scored at the store, has been found dead. It would be potentially spoiler-ish to detail where the film goes from here. It would not be spoiler-ish to mention that an insect-covered birthday cake, pillars being pound into the ground in the middle of the night, a double (or the hallucination of one), self-harm and a psychotic break all figure into it.
Having founded the gloriously idiosyncratic fashion house Rodarte, the Mulleavy sisters’ toe-dip into filmmaking avoids the Tom Ford path of cine-chic least resistance and aims for a seventh-art equivalent to their style – what a New Yorker profile dubbed “beautiful meets baroque.” There’s a hazy, faded-Kodachrome look to everything, as if shot through an Instagram filter dubbed “Vintage Avant-Garde Movies”; superimpositions and shaky jump cuts help sell a sense of stony disassociation, and you often feel like the duo are merely one crushed-butterfly frame away from going full metal Brakhage. The whole affair feels self-consciously sensual, from the attention to how a crinkly bag of schwag sounds to the way crushed blackberries look smeared on their heroine’s lips. So much depends, the film seems to implore, on how dirty feet look against white sheets.
Your mileage may vary on whether such attention to atmosphere and visual grace notes can sustain a movie so deathlessly devoted to a single mood, or that views a late-act genre rail-jump as something like a character arc. Woodshock is both gorgeous and pretentious in equal measures, and it’s hard to reconcile the fact that you don’t get one without the other – or that, coming in the shadow of another free-form swing for the fences, any rush to ding the movie for being an exercise in style over substance isn’t even slightly tinged by gender. Smart critics have mentioned that the same folks dog-earing their thesaurus in praising mother! might likely dismiss the sisters’ debut as an extended photo shoot, and you can see how a certain Mars v. Venus battle of sensibilities plays out in their respective the-center-cannot-hold vibes. If you prefer a certain taste of bombast over a specific flavor of artisanal avant-beauty, hey man, follow your bliss. Just check yourself before you hypocritically wreck yourself.
The real difference is there’s a message, however muddled, beneath the sound and fury of Aronofsky’s Bosch painting come to life, and the Mulleavys are still figuring out what they want to say. But you can tell that there’s something going on in Woodshock that suggests real artists in chrysalis form; this wobbly first movie is a compelling enough work to make you curious about what their fourth or fifth movie might bring. And if nothing else, they have demonstrated a real bond with Dunst, who has a knack for grounding things when they start to float away (figuratively and in several cases, literally). The more she shows you the gradual disintegration of this young woman’s grip on reality, the more you see how the actor gives form to some of the film’s more fraught flight-of-fancy aspects. Dunst’s performance alone makes it worth riding shotgun on this death trip. This is hopefully the beginning of a beautiful friendship.