Rodarte fashion brand founders (and costume designers for Black Swan) the Mulleavy sisters make their feature film debut with Woodshock, a film that suffers from every dismissive cliché one hears thrown at purely visual artists trying to transition to cinema. Like an American Horror Story title sequence stretched out to 100 minutes rather than 90 seconds, it’s broodingly atmospheric and visually evocative, but also utterly, mind-numbingly empty, lacking story, character, and meaning. It’s a huge disappointment, especially as it’s being launched by the venerable indie distributors A24, whose recent track record is excellent to say the least, and lets down an impressive cast.
With the film ostensibly following one woman’s descent into madness, Kirsten Dunst leads Woodshock as Theresa, a medical marijuana pharmacist who is coping with the loss of her mother in very unhealthy ways. Refusing to discuss her feelings with anyone, and shutting out her husband Nick and longtime friend Keith (Joe Cole and Pilou Asbaek, both completely wasted in blank-slate roles), Theresa is silent more often than not. Her wandering around town (despite the title, there is minimal actual woodland action, though the Woodstock reference is earned by marijuana’s integral part in the film’s mood) is visually arresting, but these scenes never mean or amount to anything.
By the hour mark, it becomes difficult to not yell at the screen and demand that Woodshock actually do something, but the Mulleavys refuse. They are steadfastly committed to incoherence, which eventually numbs the mind and renders the deliberate artsy abstraction ever more annoying, even as the visual ideas become more ambitious. Undeniably, Woodshock creates a unique mood, cloying and sickly, and the final shot is striking and iconic, but for the most part, this feels like a film designed for a cool trailer without anything further or deeper in mind.
Only in the last 10 minutes are any concessions made to conventional narrative progress, and by then it’s too little, far too late, especially as these developments barely make sense anyway, even in this surreal, trippy world. Dunst is an engaging presence, and very game for the weirdness of the role, but she needed to be given more to do for the question of whether her hallucinations are thanks to a broken psyche or supernatural presence to possess any intrigue.
Woodshock does show promise, with its unnerving aesthetic reminiscent of a more rustic and elemental Nicholas Winding Refn film, though it lacks all the sick sense of fun and literary leanings of the Danish master’s work. Developing this alongside an actual story with characters that matter could lead to something special, as this is a very confidently original debut. As it stands though, it’s an aggressively soulless piece of work that will most likely struggle to find any sort of audience once it transfers from the festival circuit to theatrical release.