Immersed in the eternal, wondrous beauty of the northern California Redwoods, a fragile Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) drowns in the guilt associated with the emotional weight of helping her mother commit assisted suicide with poison-laced cannabis which she procured through her job at a dispensary. Theresa spirals as she accidentally kills one of her friends with a separate dose of the poison-laced weed, meant for a customer, and she begins to use it herself, entering a violent, psychedelic state. As Theresa struggles to keep a stable grip on reality, the only thing that becomes certain to her are the woods.
“It’s important to remind ourselves that these trees have been around here for thousands of years.” – Laura Mulleavy
Woodshock is sensual and mythical; Theresa is somewhat reminiscent of a lost forest nymph, attempting to find her way. For most of the film, Theresa wanders through her mother’s empty house—wearing one of the dresses her mother left behind—or the vast woods. Dunst plays Theresa well, although it is not one of her most exceptional roles, and she keeps the film grounded and engaging. She fits perfectly into the part, however dull it may be (although that is mostly a fault of the script, not Dunst herself). Despite being given very little to work worth, Dunst keeps the film vaguely interesting. I truly wish the leading characters were more vibrant and compelling; it would have made for a much more powerful narrative.
The most redeeming quality of the film is certainly its cinematography. The directing Mulleavy sisters clearly have an eye for beauty and delicacy, it shines through in their masterful, garden-like creations for Rodarte and it shines through here. This is definitively my favorite thing about the Woodshock. It is hazy and dreamy, yet still sharp and dynamic; Everything filled to the brim with life as strong as the trees the sisters are so deeply awed by. The Mulleavy sisters’ creation of atmosphere is excellent; however, they haven’t quite figured out what they want to say, and the writing quietly drags along. The sisters forego a coherent linear narrative in favor of an experimental first-person character study of Theresa, which could be dynamic if the script didn’t fail in every other way.
Woodshock is an ode to the Redwoods and the ancient power of the natural world; it is a deep examination of grief and escapism. It is incredibly disappointing that a film vibrating with such potential became so dull and has little to offer by way of intriguing story-telling. I deeply adore experimental films, particularly films that delve into dreamscapes and hallucinations, so it truly disappoints me to say that Woodshock just didn’t engage me. It is certainly a film worth watching—if not simply for the gorgeous cinematography—however, don’t expect to leave completely satisfied. I do believe the Mulleavys are onto something wonderful with this film, and I look forward to their future directorial works.
Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.