Grief constitutes its own kind of madness, in the way that it disorients and blinds, in how it rotates one’s daily world off its axis and into the uncertain terror of permanent absence. Woodshock immerses itself in that terror, speaking to nebulous concepts through a film that concerns itself far more with the textures and sensations of loss than with any kind of narrative exploration of the same. As such, it sacrifices much of its emotional resonance in exchange for those tactile experiences, but in their directorial debut, Kate and Laura Mulleavy seek to give voice to them all the same.
Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) is set adrift by the passing of her mother, which she facilitates through a joint laced with some sort of mysterious, powerful psychoactive drug. In the following days she drifts through her house like a ghost, divorced from any kind of reality once familiar to her and from her partner Nick (Joe Cole), who fails to understand the profound experience Theresa is enduring every second of the day. Her only kindred spirit is Keith (Pilou Asbæk), and he’s also perhaps the most menacing presence in her life in the same breath. They work together at a pot clinic in Humboldt County, California, where she listlessly makes the rounds of her day job as Keith waxes inappropriate about how “sometimes you look like your mom.”
Nick spends his days cutting down the stunning redwood trees that have long served as a hallmark of the region, and Woodshock spends no shortage of time lingering over those ornate forests, full of history and character, as man tears through them with little regard. Yet it’s just one of a series of symbols that the sisters Mulleavy linger over at length without drawing more meaningful connections between Theresa’s fading state and her pain over the euthanizations that she and Keith perform as a side business/dubious kindness. Woodshock is full of these gazes: at the redwoods, at the walls of the house, at Dunst in various states of deterioration. Yet they never synthesize into more than shading; while the Mulleavys have a distinct command of tone and, again, texture, the film is more a collage of striking images than any kind of a cogent whole built from them.
In fairness, it accomplishes at least the latter in distinct fashion. Dunst is an endlessly expressive performer, and even if she’s delivered this sort of near-wordless portrayal of anguish more effectively elsewhere, she’s nevertheless adept at bringing gravitas to a film that eventually declares itself as an artful Reefer Madness around the time when Theresa enters the void and begins dabbling in her own supply of the mysterious vial’s contents. (Her work here recalls her stellar turn in Melancholia, both in her performance and in the faded moonlight hues in which the Mulleavys frequently bathe her.) She’s tasked with giving Theresa an inner life that the film only hints at otherwise, and even as she spirals into hallucinatory paranoia, Dunst lends her a sense of humanity that Woodshock otherwise eschews in favor of style. Theresa may remain a cipher, but born out of an unkempt vulnerability, and much of that emerges from the actor over the film itself.
The Mulleavys have a definite eye for compositions, which is hardly surprising given their primary work as the brains behind the fashion world mainstay Rodarte. Their interests clearly lie with the aesthetic over the narrative, and to that end, Woodshock speaks to Theresa’s collapse through washed-out colors (with occasional flashes of stark neon light) and dreamy overlaid visual editing. Yet by and large, Woodshock often adopts the feel of a hazy, distant experiment in design, a tale of grief viewed through glass at a far-off distance. It’s consistently impressive in those designs, to be sure, but its style comes at the expense of the emotions it seems to toy with on occasion before ultimately discarding. There’s agony in the margins of every frame, but it remains muted beneath so many layers of color and so many hands drifting across surfaces.