‘Woodshock’ Review: Kirsten Dunst and Rodarte Lose Their Way in the Woods

The promising debut feature from fashion designer sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy is beautifully messy and emotionally muddled

“Woodshock” begins with death, as Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), a medical marijuana dispensary employee, provides her terminally ill mother (Susan Traylor, “Greenberg”) with a dignified end by spiking some weed with a toxic, unnamed liquid substance.

This sequence is juxtaposed with shots of Theresa in the nearby woods, physically tiny and powerless as she wanders among living, old growth redwoods and their devastated, blunt stumps. (The film was shot in Northern California’s Humboldt County.) A powerful opening, it’s reminiscent of “Wanda,” Barbara Loden’s 1970 independent classic that begins with a miserable housewife wandering through a decimated, coal-blackened landscape in Pennsylvania and made similarly small.

From that moment forward, first-time filmmakers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the fashion label Rodarte, work to connect Theresa’s mourning with the devastation of the forest around her. They do so with occasional, gorgeously realized success, and with an equal amount of directorial disorientation.

Theresa interacts, but cannot connect, with her increasingly estranged partner Nick (Joe Cole, “Green Room”), who works for the people cutting down the trees. And her efforts to support her dispensary boss, Keith (Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, “A War”), fail when a second assisted suicide for a sick customer goes disastrously wrong. Theresa’s grief now compounded with guilt, she self-medicates with that toxic mystery liquid, and the film’s second half, which plays out as a series of nightmarish hallucinations, kicks in like a gorgeously decorated bad trip.

The Mulleavys’ influences are everywhere to be seen here, and production designer K.K. Barrett (“Her”) has synthesized those elements impeccably. Photographer Nan Goldin, whose tough-minded portraits of friends often evoke sorrow and loss, is thanked in the closing credits, and her intimate scale is felt. The sculptural landscape cut-outs of the late artist Gordon Matta-Clark (who famously once sawed an entire house in half) are already a transposed element sometimes seen in Rodarte clothing, and they find their way into the frequent references to buzz saws, deforestation and severed domestic connections.

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The haze of William Eggleston’s 1970s-era photos of everyday American life can be located in the film’s neighborhood bars and markets. And Dan Flavin’s fluorescent, minimalist light sculptures, which the Mulleavys have appropriated as criss-crossing light sources lining the sides of recent Rodarte runway shows, float into Theresa’s hallucinations in the form of glowing geometric prisms. As Tim Gunn is fond of saying, “It’s a lot of look.”

If “Woodshock” were all look and only look, it could be more easily dismissed. And viewers with readymade clichés for opinions about the shallow nature of the fashion world will be all too ready to do just that. But the Mulleavys are onto something, even if their disinterest in conventional narrative solutions to plotting paints them into a corner, forcing them to rely on another set of clichés borrowed from the history of experimental cinema.

Dunst works entirely in their favor, even if sometimes she feels less like a person and more like a visual motif. She levitates in a beautiful Rodarte gown, but it’s in service to sadness; she commits random acts of violence and slow-motions herself into what may or may not be a personal oblivion, but she does so to an intoxicatingly drowsy soundtrack of Galaxie 500 and Wire songs, effortlessly chill good taste following her down the stoner end. She’s a perfect Rodarte muse, with an at-rest face that betrays nothing less than a seen-it-before defensive stance, her otherwise wide range of expressive qualities locked into a distracted, despairing creature whose batteries seem to be winding down.

The points to made here, then, are a fairly messy tangle, and would seem to include the implication of human rootlessness in the physical and emotional destruction of the modern world; the unintended and sometimes dire consequences of mercy and love; the beauty of wood-paneled living rooms and energy-inefficient harvest yellow kitchen appliances; and the confusion and brutality that results when human beings intervene in nature. There are even moments when it appears that the script is equating euthanasia with straightforward murder, but that can’t… quite… be the case? Right?

The Mulleavys have what it takes to continue in film if they decide to pursue this path, with a firm, confident hold on light, texture, color, mood, sound, and physical space. So if “Woodshock” is, ultimately, unsatisfying, it’s not because they haven’t put in the time to immerse you in their obsessions.

It functions somewhat like their most challenging clothes: beautiful and strangely constructed, nodding to the avant-garde and sometimes seemingly unwearable. But when their narrative sense finds its way out of the woods, and translates into the strong emotional qualities “Woodshock” clearly wants to communicate, it will be a beautiful thing to witness.