An uneven directorial debut finds feeling within moments of pure sensation

 

Woodshock seeks itself through images—it is a movie caught between the sensation of art and the integrity of narrative. At first glance, it seems to be about a mother’s death, or about the gender roles that can isolate a grieving woman. However, these motifs fade into the quiet passage of time. It is a movie about too much, with never enough intensity. Woodshock is a searching film—take this as an equivocal warning. The pacing drags and the writing may be trite, but the film still manages to reach profound moments of honesty.

What can be said for certain is that Woodshock explores the sensation of touch. Here, texture is more important than visual storytelling, as hands tug on clothing, bare feet step on earth, and the grain and bark of trees take over the whole screen. What else would you expect from Laura and Kate Mulleavy? The co-directors are sisters and founders of the high-end fashion line, Rodarte. If surfaces are everything in fashion, then Woodshock is what those surfaces might feel like.

But, the movie is also about depression and its potential to mute one’s senses. Kirsten Dunst plays Theresa, a woman stuck in a small Northwest American town. Woodshock opens with the death of her mother: Theresa lights a joint and passes it to her mother lying in bed, who inhales and passes peacefully. This seems to set off Theresa’s ethical struggle. She provides euthanasia marijuana under the counter while working at the local dispensary. Death comes from a clear liquid she uses to lace the drug. It is her burden; she is the only one with access to the drug, or perhaps is the only person with the strength to use it.

Dunst’s performance is necessarily mesmerizing. Most of the movie is spent watching her wander through her empty home, or wander through banal social encounters. Theresa has a certain middle-class freedom, and a self-composed constraint. Dunst lets her grow without dialogue and without strain, performing a loneliness similar to her role in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

Unfortunately, her co-stars don’t embody the same aesthetic of loneliness. Joe Cole plays Theresa’s young husband, Nick, a meek and disinterested logger. Pilou Asbæk plays Keith, the manager of the dispensary and ostensibly Theresa’s sole friend. He is a dangerous man—one who constantly threatens to overwhelm Theresa with his plainspoken sexism. The two men are mirrors of oppression; refusing to make an effort to understand, they try to control her grief.

Their characters suffer because neither Nick nor Keith are granted access to the experimental sequences in the movie, where Theresa is able to change. They remain undeveloped and static within a plot that is tired, disingenuous, and the weakest part of Woodshock. The story feels tacked on by someone afraid of creating a purely experimental work. It often intrudes upon moments of surreal introspection, dissipating the emotional momentum of a scene with a single cut.

When the experimentation is allowed to be unconstrained, it is sublime. Theresa floats and flashes back into a forest; she sleepwalks and day-walks and self-harms—it is a nightmare and freeing and feels like depression. The Mulleavys may be afraid of letting their narrative drift too far into fantasy—they don’t realize their world is already more fantastic than reality. It’s not until the last third of the movie that Theresa breaks from narrative logic. Catharsis arrives as surreal image meets texture. This sequence is the most powerful in the film; not because it was delayed repeatedly by the narrative, but because it is true. In its searching, Woodshock has found a moment of honesty, and it holds onto it as long as it will last.

 

Photo | Courtesy of TIFF