[This is a re-post of our review from the 2017 Venice Film Festival. Woodshock opens in limited release this week.]
Sisters Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy are the award-winning fashion designers behind the high couture fashion label, Rodarte. They also designed the ballet costumes for Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan. For their feature-film debut, Woodshock, they have assembled a very talented group of individuals, from star Kirsten Dunst to the Oscar-nominated production designer K.K. Barrett (Her) to editors Julia Bloch and Dino Jonsater, who’ve worked on recent genre leaders like Green Room and Let the Right One In. And similar to Black Swan (and many other films), Woodshock involves a woman spiraling out of control with paranoia. Add A24 as a distributor and this feels like there’s the potential for a breakout film.
A24 released a delicious teaser trailer earlier this year and having now seen the Mulleavys’ film, let me just say that it’s the perfect film for a teaser trailer. Because it’s completely hollow. There are plenty of pretty images that look great spliced together in frantic bursts, overlaid on top of each other. But stretched over nearly two hours for the actual film, those imagery bursts are all that Woodshock has to offer. There is essentially no story. There are scenes that feel entirely like placeholders. There is no pacing, just a moth flying slowly into a flame. There’s more thought going into the color filters, which classic post punk songs to play on a jukebox, and the bra and nightgown selection than anything resembling character building or story. And worst of all, Woodshock abandons a very willing performer in Dunst.
Melancholia onward, Dunst has shown a willingness to embrace depressed characters and discussing her own battles with depression. Her screen presence has always had a little bit of hidden sadness despite Hollywood’s attempts to sell her as a bubblegum babe. And her blistering return after a two-year hiatus with Melancholia, The Two Faces of January, Fargo, and The Beguiled has fully embraced portrayals of lives that we’re meeting in the midst of emotional undertows. I’ve always enjoyed Dunst, but she’s reinvented herself and proven herself to be one of the best actresses working in film today. And she gives Woodshock more than she’s given. She’s covered and dirt and blood but the Mulleavy’s have cast her out into the woods without anything to anchor her or the audience to.
Woodshock opens with Dunst providing her ailing mother with some medicinal marijuana that’s been laced with something that will kill her. She asks her mother’s permission and expresses that it’s painless. It’s assisted suicide, perhaps not leaving a trace of poison. Assisted suicide seems to be something that the local marijuana dispensary, for which Dunst’s Theresa works, seems to specialize in. The owner, Keith (Pilou Asbæk), is preparing to assist another ailing local man to similarly ease into death and out pain. We’re introduced to Keith dancing at a bar to Television because the soundtrack apparently calls for it, as we also see him play tracks by Suicide and Gary Numan, Keith also harasses Theresa’s boyfriend(?)/husband(?), Nick (Joe Cole), for no apparent reason. I put boyfriend/husband in question marks not as placeholders but that’s how ill defined every character is in Woodshock. Portraits of emotional unraveling work when those relationships are established and a fall from grace can actually feel like a fall. Instead, Woodshock is just happy to exist as a death rattle with cool images and cool songs playing in the background.
Theresa is grief stricken about her mother; she also feels guilty in aiding her death. This isn’t helped by she and Nick moving into her mother’s old house. Theresa also flubs the assisted suicide of the next patron and accidentally kills a young, healthy younger man. With that extra bit of grief she decides to smoke the deathly drug herself, except she spans it out over five joints so as to not kill herself but experience its poisoning effects in small doses. Why does she want to experience this? We’re not sure and the script can’t be bothered to give us any texture. But it allows for the Rodarte sisters to show repeated shots of trees being cut down from the base and Dunst seeing things in her bathroom mirror. I suppose everything beautiful gets cut down is the takeaway? Everything here is dressed up so beautiful. To their credit, though Woodshock looks like a carefully curated Instagram, there is an ambient quality to the film as no cell phones or even cameras are ever in sight, despite how picturesque every tree and white gown are.
If there’s any positive takeaway from Woodshock it’s that the Mulleavys do know how to pull of a lot of magazine-spread-worthy shots. The sepia, green, and aqua tones are magnificent. But there’s no sense at all why they made this film because nothing written or outwardly expressed registers or even has a pulse. Did they just want to update a woman crumbling short story like The Yellow Wallpaper into the White Joint Paper? Puff, puff, pass on Woodshock.