Studio A24 has built a reputation on bold approaches to cinematic storytelling. Rarely intended for wide audiences, their films are frequently quirky, insightful, and psychologically challenging, offering a risky experience for filmgoers used to the straight-and-narrow approach of larger studio houses. A24’s latest release, Woodshock, encapsulates all that A24 is in this audacious debut from sisters and collaborating partners Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy. Heavily influenced by their work in the fashion industry, Woodshock is an alarming, frequently confusing, often discombobulating, psychedelic exploration of the all-consuming sway of mourning. Woodshock – a grand debut of two budding cinematic auteurs – features a talented cast makes the most of the material that’s thin on substance, yet large on style.
Caught in a spiral of grief and solitude, Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) spends her days milling about her home and avoiding her husband Nick (Joe Cole), co-worker Keith (Pilou Asbæk), and friends. As her isolation grows and her use of a cannabinoid drug increases, her grip on reality loosens, giving way to transcendental moments of disconnected bliss. At first, this seems to ease her suffering, enabling her to re-enter the life she knew before, until a new trauma occurs, sending her deeper into physical and mental seclusion.
The bulk of Woodshock’s success resides within the quiet, meditative performance from Dunst. Shying from bulky monologues, the dearth of Theresa’s story is told from introspective reaction – through her reaction to a terrible loss, reaction to her past, reaction to man, and reaction to nature. This requires the audience to look upon Theresa and cast their own ideas of what may or – as the story unfolds into unsettling paranoia – may not be happening. Along the way, though, Dunst conveys a woman utterly lost, devoid of any anchor in reality, succumbing to the pain of the present, and yearning for the pleasure of the past. Punctuating Dunst’s subtle performance, the Mulleavys use interspersed images of moments untethered to time to beautifully convey Theresa’s struggle. This not only demonstrates Theresa’s slow release of reality, it also instills a sense of discomfort within the audience. These moments push the audience beyond a simple question of “what is happening”; rather, they require us to ask “when is this happening”, furthering the notion that Theresa’s journey through grief may be more complex than initially perceived.
Adding to the fever dream visual elements is Peter Raeburn’s (Under the Skin/Sexy Beast) airy, chime-infused score, imbuing the story with an other-worldly fantastical feel. Though Theresa’s story is based on reality, her journey is the clash between truth and delusion; the world of man and that of nature. The more Theresa seeks to escape from her reality, pushing away from anything that might anchor her to her pain, the more she psychically travels through light, air, and memory. Furthering the fantasy connection, the Mulleavys incorporate moments of prismatic light and rapidly transitioning imagery of nature’s destruction as a means to highlight the internal turmoil with Theresa as her grief destroys her from within. The Mulleavys demonstrate great talent in their technique – utilizing sound, imagery, and performance – to immerse the audience in Theresa’s journey. However, impressive style doesn’t replace strong storytelling.
What may dissuade audiences from truly connecting with Woodshock is the lack of character development. Though the source of Theresa’s bereavement is teased out fully in a slow-drip throughout the narrative, bringing to light how psychically destructive her grief is and why, none of the other characters are as fully explored. In large respects, given the small window by which we observe her, Theresa is still a woman of great mystery. Only through her interactions with others do we get any sense of who she is but, even then, they raise other questions. Are her actions driven by anguish or is this merely another moment of toxic behavior? Since Theresa barely speaks and her actions are insular, the audience is forced to infer who she is based on her relationship to everyone else, which is surprisingly sparsely developed.
On the one hand, this further highlights her isolation; on the other, it makes the overall story hard to lock into for the duration. Cole’s Nick seems exasperated and tired, as though their marriage is a shambles resulting from a shared trauma, yet it’s never clear what trauma, if any, has taken place. Similarly, when the audience first sees Asbæk’s Keith, he is interacting with Nick in a manner that suggests Keith may be more than just a co-worker. However, the audience never gets anything more than innuendo. This complicates matters further as more characters are added to and subtracted from the narrative just as time fractures for Theresa and reality transforms into an untrustworthy thing. Without a foothold to latch onto, these characters dissipate into enigmatic symbols that the audience struggles to translate.
Once more, A24 proves itself as a studio to watch. Dunst’s performance of a woman unraveling is captivating. The sound and imagery work to simultaneously transport audiences away from reason while rooting them within a story seeking to escape time. However, the thoughtful, carefully executed style that pervades the Mulleavys’s debut film ultimately degrades into art house ephemera as audiences struggle to care about Theresa and whether she survives her battle. Perhaps the mystery of Theresa is intentional, but, come credits fall, audacious style doesn’t make up for narrative shortcomings.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.