Imagery overshadows plot in strange yet hypnotic 'Woodshock'

By Alan Zilberman
The Washington Post
Posted9/28/2017 6:00 AM
  • Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) wanders through her life in a perpetual haze in "Woodshock."

    Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) wanders through her life in a perpetual haze in "Woodshock." Courtesy of A24

For most of "Woodshock," the feelings of its heroine remain obscure. Whether at a party or at home, where she seems to be in a haze, it's as if she's lost in her own thoughts. Drugs could be one explanation -- she works at a marijuana dispensary -- yet there's a needling sense of something more tragic, more sinister.

The debut of writer-directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy, sisters who work as fashion designers, has all the hallmarks of a first film, including one too many experimental flourishes. Defiantly inscrutable, "Woodshock" can test a viewer's patience, yet the filmmakers' consistent self-confidence creates an alluring, oddly hypnotic effect.

When we first meet Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), she's sharing a bed with her ailing mother (Susan Traylor). Their whispered conversation is terse, with a subtext that Theresa is about to assist in her mother's suicide, with a joint of poison-laced marijuana. Theresa is too withdrawn to grieve normally, to the chagrin of her husband (Joe Cole). She returns to work at the dispensary, where her boss, Keith (Pilou Asbaek), tries to cheer her up. They need all the good spirits they can get, since their most loyal customer (Steph DuVall) is also terminally ill.

As for plot, an accidental killing and its aftermath -- seen from Theresa's point of view -- are at the center of "Woodshock." Dunst is in practically every scene, and her focus is so inward that all supporting characters eventually lose patience with her. Although her performance doesn't generate much sympathy, it is at the same time magnetic: During one long stretch, Theresa wanders her home, inspecting her fridge and mulling whether to take a shower. Is she debating her own suicide? So high that she finds the notion of creature comforts far out? Dunst never fully reveals Theresa, with the film building an understated tone of curiosity about what she'll do next. It could be anything.

Throughout "Woodshock," the Mulleavy sisters return, again and again, to strange, evocative imagery. There are many shots of Dunst communing with centuries-old sequoia trees, their age and gargantuan size metaphorically dwarfing Theresa's relatively trivial problems. The camera often distorts the actress's face, via reflection or neon lighting, in a muted way that evokes the feeling of being high. There is a point to these apparent gimmicks: We never get a complete understanding of Theresa's behavior, because she doesn't have one, either, thanks to a fluctuating mental state.

If it sounds like an hallucinatory, depressing slog, two important things elevate "Woodshock." The first is the performance of Asbaek, a veteran of Danish cinema and television who made a strong impression as Euron Greyjoy on "Game of Thrones." His performance as Keith is relatively muted and compassionate, yet there's a devilish charm to the character. Then there's composer Peter Raeburn's lush, haunting score, which doesn't so much comment on or embellish the story as create ambience.

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