Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sister designers behind the fashion brand Rodarte, have a respectable list on the Criterion website of their favorite 10 titles from the collection, from Robert Altman’s 3 Women to Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. They obviously appreciate cinema, which shows in their mistily shot and dreamily jump-cut-addled debut feature. But for all of its formal sophistication, Woodshock is vacuous in content, an insufferably gloomy emotional study. For its stylish superficiality, you could lump it with Tom Ford’s A Single Man under the banner of Fashion Designer Cinema.
Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) is a part-time weed dispensarist living in California’s redwood country, where the lumberjack dive bar plays deep cuts by bands like Television on the jukebox. Her boss, Keith (Pilou Asbæk), has also trusted her with a sideline in assisted suicide, lacing marijuana with a mercury-looking poison. As the film opens, Theresa prepares a joint of this stuff for her terminally ill mother (Susan Traylor), then spends the rest of the film moping and barely showing up for work. Woodshock’s alternate title could be Me Time.
The film invests Theresa’s feelings with great importance. This dissatisfied woman with no apparent responsibilities copes with a sad but inevitable and universal fact of life: going to a party, where she hangs out with the charming Johnny (Jack Kilmer), and being no fun; lying on the floor by her mom’s old bed, now sans mattress, a symbol of her loss; and communing with redwood trees (shot to emphasize their girth, as a 2.35:1 aspect ratio can’t capture their vertical enormity). Naturally, she admires the way glass refracts light.
At home, Theresa occasionally runs into her husband, Nick (Joe Cole), and acts distant, with the Mulleavy sisters’ heavy-handed screenplay setting them up as foils: he kills moths, she mourns her mother; he cuts down trees for a living, she literally hugs them. Sometimes Theresa even shows up for work, and on one such occasion, she accidentally kills someone—in a daze from drugs or grief or both—mixing up who gets regular pot and who gets her special Kevorkian strain. Even after that, Woodshock is still all about her mopey feelings, in this case about her accidental homicide.
The film’s one act of immoderation that works well is the visual aesthetic, which is overexposed and earthy, evoking the 1970s as though through an Instagram filter called “16mm.” Sometimes Woodshock looks like it’s been shot through a tank of water, reflecting distant neon lights, or the frame is lighted with bold, diegetically unlikely primary colors. The Mulleavys, with D.P. Peter Flinckenberg, do a fine job of evoking the heightened sensory experience of drug use, especially after Theresa smokes some of her suicide joints and goes on a third-act freak-out/bender, at which point the film gets trippier, spacier, and mopier. Which it to say, it becomes the obnoxious equivalent of trying to have a serious conversation with people who are high out of their minds.