The debut feature from fashion luminaries Kate and Laura Mulleavy (of Rodarte fame), “Woodshock” begins with an agonized weed dispensary worker rolling a joint, lacing it with poison, and lighting it up for her terminally ill mother. Pot is legal in California, but dying with dignity is not, and so this sort of thing has to be done on the sly. Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) is devastated that it has to be done at all — and disturbed by her role in facilitating it — but she can’t bear to leave her mom in such pain.
The corpse isn’t even cold before Theresa begins to break down. Grief always carries the trimmings of psychosis, but this is something else — she’s not just mourning, she’s practically living a Polanski film. And things don’t really get any better for her after she’s responsible for a mix-up at the office that results in an innocent teenager (Jack Kilmer) smoking a fatal spliff that was intended for somebody else.
That’s about as much as we get in the way of plot, as the film doesn’t tell a story so much as it offers a full-body simulation of the phenomenon described by its title, a specific kind of disorientation that that some people supposedly suffer when they get lost in a forest. The legitimacy of the term might be suspect — good luck finding it in the DSM-5 — but the Rodarte duo isn’t very interested in doing things by the book. Or in using a map. Or a script, it would seem. On the contrary, they’re in a race to go off the beaten trail, chasing their muse wherever it leads them. This movie is a lot of things, but compromised isn’t one of them.
A tedious but tremendously expressive exercise in subjective cinema, “Woodshock” is a sensory-driven experience from start to finish, the Mulleavy sisters foregoing a linear (or coherent) narrative in favor of leading us on a first-person tour through their heroine’s mental collapse. Most of the movie is spent watching Theresa as she wanders around the airy house that’s been newly bequeathed to her; more often than not, she’s wearing one of the slips that her mother left behind, the fabric growing tattered as she moves from room to room like somebody else’s ghost. Her own image begins to deteriorate in turn, Dunst’s face refracted through sheets of glass or softened beneath layers of fabric — in one memorable scene, Theresa stands in the bathroom and cocoons herself in the shower curtain until it forms a protective armor. The actress has never had less to work with, but she holds our attention.
Echoes of “The Virgin Suicides” reverberate throughout, especially when Peter Flickenberg’s camera follows Dunst into the forest and lies down with her in the grass. The Mulleavy sisters are known for accenting their dresses with nature motifs (especially flowers, which the models wear like gardens), and “Woodshock” allows them to lean into that harder than ever before. There’s a palpable sense of liberation during the sequences in which Theresa wanders through the wilderness, the Rodarte ethos finally taking off from the runway. There’s hardly a single moment of the film that isn’t somehow illustrating humanity’s relationship with nature, that inextricable dynamic visible in everything from the wallpaper of Theresa’s house to the primal way in which she uses a berry to bring color to her lips.
The Mulleavy sisters are on much shakier grounds when they try to articulate that same relationship. Theresa’s boyfriend, Nick (Joe Cole), is an utter non-presence who spends the brunt of his time sawing down Redwood trees for the lumber bill on the edge of town, but “Woodshock” uses his character as a foundation for a profoundly rotten metaphor. “Do you ever regret it,” Theresa asks Nick, “cutting everything down?” Each massive tree is another life lost, and they’re not growing back. In an otherwise abstract film, it’s strikingly obvious how the editing is meant to conflate the trauma of deforestation with the death of Theresa’s mother.
The implication is clumsy enough that it almost seems accidental, but “Woodshock” is so attuned to our psychic connection with the planet — and so light on character — that Theresa’s breakdown can’t help but feel like a broad rebuke to the practice of euthanasia. Killing the planet and letting a loved one die with dignity are two very different things, and the mismatch between these concepts is more disorienting than any of the film’s hazy superimpositions.
The Mulleavy sisters are obviously gifted sensualists, and the synesthesia of their approach is so extreme that it almost starts to work (e.g. the harp sound that eventually emerges from Peter Raeburn’s ambient score comes to express Theresa’s mindset, even when she’s not on camera), but the substance of their first movie isn’t nearly as compelling as the style they use to suffocate it. “Woodshock” offers a whole lot to look at, but not all that much to see.
“Woodshock” opens in theaters on September 22.