Please accept what follows as a considered statement, arrived at through observation and experience, and not as film-review hype or boilerplate: Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy’s Woodshock is the rare drug movie that, as you watch it, if you surrender to it, stirs the sensations of having taken drugs. I’m not insisting that this moody art-house Kirsten Dunst picture is “Melancholia on acid!” or calling it a trip or anything. Let’s be precise. It’s a potent evocation of pot, of your mind in a stoned stupor, of your eyes glazing over as the light around you becomes entrancing. Not much happens in most of its scenes, but there’s much for the patient or the high to get caught up in. I spent much of the running time happily puzzling over the complex reflections and refractions of light onscreen, wondering in individual moments, as her character sleeps and grieves, whether we were watching Dunst through a mirror, or through panes of glass or through a hazy funhouse of both.
Woodshock follows The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled as the third entry in a film series celebrating Dunstian lassitude, though here the actress mostly is alone in the frame, isolated rather than caught up in intensely intimate community. In T-shirts and jeans, Dunst’s character, Theresa, rolls reefer, licks the paper, blazes up and then wanders the ranch house where her sick mother has recently died, with Theresa’s help, in something of an assisted matricide situation. In the first moments, the mother lays in bed in a daze, and Theresa passes her a joint laced with some unidentified poison. Theresa tells her that what will happen next will hurt, but whether the mother understands what she’s been offered is for you to work out.
The rest of the film finds Theresa slumping her way through guilt and loss, smoking up more and more often, sleeping on floors and on naked bed frames, haunting a redwood forest in a hand-me-down slip, staring at her face in a bathroom mirror as the shower runs. In the bathroom, wiping steam from the glass, she seems overwhelmed, in a convincingly stoned way, by the number of steps it takes to perform a task like showering. She ends up sitting in the tub as the water runs, still wearing her underthings.
The footage is rapturous in its beauty but pointedly unglamorous in its content. The writer-directors are sisters and fashion designers who cooked up the costumes for The Black Swan; their feature debut offers something like 15 minutes worth of story in its 100-minute running time. Those story scenes concern more laced pot, customers at the California medical marijuana dispensary where Theresa works and a distant live-in boyfriend who chops down redwoods for a logging company. He exults at the chance to log a patch of old grove that it’s taken years to get a permit for; she looks askance at the hardwood finish of her floors and cabinets, and occasionally sprawls out on the stump of a long dead redwood, its expanse wider than some studio apartments. We see that from above, and it’s a wonder, a suggestion of a sylph or dryad on the ash-black wood.
In the final third, Theresa’s daze takes on an edge, as she considers smoking a tainted joint herself, and the Mulleavys stage some marvelous bits of too-high confusion and mania. The camera dances in the trees; Theresa walks along, dwarfed by the ancient trees, occasionally corkscrewing up into the sky, levitating. Bugs buzz and ambient tones saw on a soundtrack that gets under your skin like chiggers. A burst of violence juices the film’s end but seemed to me to an unfortunate misstep, as the film and Dunst’s performance (and, to be honest, marijuana) don’t compellingly build toward it. Woodshock is a study of a mind’s stoned studying, of its slipping in and out of a haze, rather than one of a mind’s unraveling or snapping. It’s just as interesting as that sounds — you’ll either embrace it or find it agony.