MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Woodshock’ is a beautifully challenging work of cinematic art

Not without its faults, this challenging, dark and stunning thriller is a paranoid stoner fever dream

| September 26, 2017

The world of mainstream cinema has just gotten its first real taste of experimental cinema on the wide-release scale for the first time in a long time with “mother!,” a studio-produced, A-list, wide-released psychological horror film that has garnered polarizing critical response and an overwhelmingly negative audience response due to its dense, esoteric, experimental nature. Many, including myself, thought that “mother!” would’ve worked best as a limited release with a slower roll out, in similar fashion that films like “Selma” and “The Big Short” worked for Paramount. Meanwhile, A24 has been prepping their own surrealist romp for release in “Woodshock,” the first film from Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the founders of the Rodarte couture brand. Like Tom Ford, this represents a new change in the fashion industry with many making the jump from one visual art medium to the other. Also, like Ford, the seemingly light and airy world of fashion has translated directly into a dark, brooding, psychological thriller of the weirdest variety.

And yet, after “mother!,” “Woodshock” can’t help but feel tame.

Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) is a Northern California woman reeling from the loss of her mother (Susan Traylor), after helping her commit assisted suicide with the help of a potent, deadly cannabinoid drug mixed with marijuana. Theresa lives with her boyfriend, Nick (Joe Cole) and works at a marijuana dispensary with Keith (Pilou Asbæk), a volatile, yet close friend of hers. After her mother’s death, Theresa finds herself nearly catatonic in numbness, and begins to lace her marijuana with traces of the potent additive, which causes her already chaotic life out of control due to her vivid and disturbing hallucinations.

“Woodshock” isn’t technically deep by any thematic means, but it’s a viscerally commanding film that utilizes its aesthetic for its benefit, creating a nearly exclusively visual experience that somehow works. The Mulleavy sisters have a real knack for how to visually entrap an audience in its unconventional beauty. Filled with double exposures and quick cut sequences of paranoid breakdowns, this is a film that might take some getting used to, but when your eyes adjust to its style, you can’t get enough of it.

Dunst is absolutely fabulous as Theresa, a woman constantly on the verge of a nervous meltdown. Even though the character development of the film is weak, Dunst brings a lot of depth to Theresa that makes her a much more compelling character than one might expect to find her. She’s broken, and Dunst knows how to play broken. It’s not as strange of a performance as say her performance in something like “Melancholia,” but the journey that she goes through throughout “Woodshock” is one that’s palpable and resonant. Asbæk as Keith is also a surprisingly powerful performance that I didn’t expect to see. Keith, while very close to Theresa, could not be more opposite to her personality. He’s talkative, affectionate, attentive and he really does care about Theresa, even when her drug use begins to hurt her. Asbæk reminded me a lot of a young Russell Crowe here, with a level of sensitivity I’ve been waiting to see from both actors.

I’ve mentioned it before, but my biggest concern with “Woodshock” is that it just doesn’t have many characters to explore. We follow Theresa throughout this entire film, but we never really get to know how Theresa got to this point in her life, or the type of person she used to be before this loss affected her so profoundly. At the start of “Woodshock,” we’re treated to catatonic Theresa and catatonic Theresa only. This level of silence and grief she takes on makes it hard to really penetrate the surface of Theresa’s being, making the experience of “Woodshock” feel like we’re watching someone’s breakdown from the outside in, rather than from an intrinsic perspective.

Still, that being said, it can’t be understated how beautiful “Woodshock” is as a film. While it could be argued that in their first feature, Kate and Laura Mulleavy might be trying too hard to be unique or edgy, but I found their eye to be very on brand with their other profession as fashion designers. Rodarte isn’t a conventionally pretty line of apparel, unlike say Chanel. It’s an ethereal, experimental line that captures a flower child-like quality to it with a couture sheen. The same could be said about “Woodshock,” a film that takes place in dull, small-town environments that come to life in the colorful, haunting vision of the Mulleavys. This isn’t a film that will speak to everyone (judging by its critical reaction, it’s not speaking to many people at all), but it’s one that if you take the leap and go with it without any real trepidation about the journey, the destination in its finale is a stunning and beautiful realization of an endgame.

There’s a certain level of willingness to think and to create that the audience has to bring to “Woodshock,” which might sound like a cop-out, but I promise it’s a surprisingly effective means of approaching the film. Much like “mother!,” “Woodshock” isn’t everything it appears to be on the surface, and while the Mulleavys are in no way as heavy-handed in allegorical storytelling than the Mulleavys do here, I found on a second run through of the film that they don’t do things for the sake of doing things. Every camera choice and double-exposure method gives the scene a layer of depth and beauty that when examined, does make sense with the way that the film ends up. I’m not crazy about having to re-watch a film to understand more of what the filmmakers were intending to do, but if you get the chance to, “Woodshock” opens up immensely on a second viewing.

“Woodshock” is nowhere near the disaster that many critics are making it out to be, but it isn’t the surrealist masterpiece it could’ve been. Somewhere in the middle, “Woodshock” sits, however beautiful and powerful it may be, does suffer quite a bit from a real lack of character and setting depth that only goes surface deep. Still, the way that the Mulleavys take on this project with such a visual strength, the power in Dunst and Asbæk’s performances, and a haunting feeling of grief and fear that follows you long after the film’s enigmatic ending. While I certainly believe more audiences will connect with “Woodshock” than they did with “mother!,” this is still a film with a very experimental feel to it, topped off with a high fashion gloss that turns these majestic redwoods into something far more haunting and heavy than one would expect from a film such as this.

3.5/5

Photo courtesy of A24

Directed by: Kate and Laura Mulleavy
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Joe Cole, Pilou Asbæk, Jack Kilmer, Stephan DuVall, Susan Traylor.
Runtime: 100 minutes
Rating: R for drug use, language and a scene of violence.
Opening Sept. 29 exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village.

An A24 release, Bloom presents, a Cota Films/Waypoint Entertainment production, a film by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, “Woodshock”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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