Released in 2017 it was written and directed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy; sisters who are probably more known for the fashion label Rodarte which they founded in 2005, alongside also having co-designed costumes for Darren Aronofsky’s unsettling film Black Swan (2010).
So, what is Woodshock about? Loosely it focuses on the life of a young-ish woman who lives in a rural Redwood forest and town area of Northern California and who is dealing with grief and isolation. The film documents and reflect her emotional state and reality which begin to fracture and unravel as she repeatedly uses a strong hallucinatory substance.
However, to ask what the film is about is somewhat misleading as this is not a conventional narrative film.
The presence of “known” American actress Kirsten Dunst in the lead role and to a degree the manner in which it has been conventionally presented/distributed leads the viewer to expect that this will be an at least reasonably conventional film.
In reality it is far from that and in some ways could be seen as being nearer to a film which might be shown in a gallery setting rather than via traditional cinemas and home viewing; Woodshock contains a linear narrative as it follows Kirsten Dunst’s character Theresa spiralling life and actions but it appears more concerned with creating an atmosphere and visual impressions/expressions of inner emotion than in plot exposition:
“It’s not about an explanation… maybe the questions are more interesting.” (Comments on Woodshock by the directors.)
And as with some of gallery orientated work where it is only once the viewer has read the accompanying text that the work’s meaning and the intentions of its creator begin to become more apparent, Woodshock’s nuances begin to make more sense once the Blu-ray’s accompanying extra Making Woodshock: A Mental Landscape has been watched.
In this featurette Kate and Laura Mulleavy discuss and put forward their intentions for the film and the way in which its different elements have been carefully chosen, pieced and layered together.
For example the score by Peter Raeburn features birdsong recordings which are not necessarily overly prominent upon a casual viewing but the Mulleavy’s point out that they only appear when lead character Theresa appears and they become the sound of her.
The score is also only played when Theresa is present, while pre-existing songs by amongst others Television, Gary Numan, Wire, Suicide and Galaxie 500 are only played when Keith, one of the male leads, is onscreen.
This musical selection of pre-existing songs subconsciously adds to a sense that although rurally set there is an element of this community which seems nearer to say the sleazier, scuzzball side of an urban indie way of life; Keith seems to spend much of his time in a darkly artificially lit bar that could as easily be situated in a large city as next door to a Redwood forest and he is essentially a licensed/legitimised drug dealer (more on which in a moment).
There is a dreamlike atmosphere to the film but rather than being a comforting, enveloping haze there is an emotional disconnect or distancing. This is created in part through the actions of its characters but may also be due in part to creative decisions by the film makers who for example in A Mental Landscape discuss how much of the film is shot via reflections with the intention of quietly dislocating the viewer as doorways will for example open one way and then another.
Accompanying such subtle visual aspects the film features extensive otherworldly visuals, making use of the likes of double exposures, heavily coloured lighting, briefly strobe lit forests, fleeting moments of flashbacks, the surreal levitation of a home and a person and so forth. However such elements do not generally feel overtly surreal but rather they have a sense of being almost seamlessly part of this world.
The surreality of the film is also added to as Theresa is pictured wandering amongst the enormous ancient Redwood trees, introducing an almost Alice in Wonderland element as she appears impossibly small, as though she has imbibed an Alice-like potion and shrunk (which to a degree she has, although in this case she has ingested an hallucinogen).
The relatively understated and often brief nature of such otherworldly visuals quietly and subtly help to build a sense of the fracturing of Theresa’s mental state as she repeatedly re-medicates herself and her life descends into an inescapable “bad trip”.
As she makes that descent there is a growing and eventually almost unbearable pressure that the viewer may not necessarily realise has come to be amongst the day-to-day mundanity elements of her life and where and how she lives. This is in part expressed via the film’s use of aspects of almost traditional American indie film tropes as it presents slightly dour, aimless lives (friends who don’t like one another hang out and get wasted, there’s nothing in the fridge etc).
Theresa works at Keith’s shop where he provides legal cannaboids to those with a medical license/need. This premises is a particular counterbalance to Theresa’s forestland and landscape wanderings and her understatedly stylish old worldly decorated home.
The shop seems almost coldly alien and scientific, in a manner which would not make it seem out of place in the earlier films of David Cronenberg or more appositely his son Brandon’s Antiviral (2012); although in a less overtly transgressive/shocking manner than in Antiviral, in Woodshock “natural” intoxicants are prepared and sold in a manner which seems far removed from their organic origin.
A further reflection of this disconnect with nature is the film’s depiction of the Redwood forests and mankind’s action in regards to them; their huge size and stature implies the ancient nature of this landscape but its potential contemporary transience is depicted as they are shown being cut down and the almost primitive seeming industrial mechanised preparation of the resulting timber is returned to on a number of occasions.
This destruction is also shown to be literally close to Theresa’s home and heart as her boyfriend is a lumberjack. She says to him at one point in a brief almost matter-of-fact exchange which lingers chillingly and memorably with the viewer:
“Do you ever regret it, cutting everything down?”
His only reply is “Sometimes” and it is obvious that the logging will carry on.
Possibly in a manner that reflects the Mulleavy’s fashion work, there is at times a languid beauty to Woodshock, which finds Kirsten Dunst wandering through her home and the forest in stylish and sometimes semi-diaphanous apparel in a manner that would not be out of place in say a higher end more abstractly orientated perfume advert.
But make no mistake; despite these elements of beauty, this is a far from lightweight, surface orientated view of a woman’s life; the film shows a subtle but intense fracturing to Theresa’s life, an unruddered and ultimately destructive journey through life, grief and psyche.
By the end that journey shockingly and briefly explodes into brutal violence, which may put the viewer in mind of the unravelling psyche of the female protagonists in rural isolation which is shown in José Ramón Larraz’s film Symptoms (1974) and Robert Altman’s Images (1972), while a final surreal montage of elements which include flashbacks, forestland and Theresa staring at the viewer is not all that removed from the original excised ending of Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974).
Woodshock could be considered to explore not wholly dissimilar territory as Josephine Decker’s film Butter on the Latch (2013) which as with the Mulleavy’s film also depicts a strikingly beautiful woodland landscape and utilises some conventional film tropes alongside brief flashes of surreality and which ultimately, although stylistically less conventional, as with Woodshock is located at a far remove from mainstream Hollywood.
Woodshock only received a brief US theatrical release and a very limited cinematic showing in Portugal. To my knowledge it is not available officially in the UK either to watch online or on DVD/Blu-ray. It is available as a European import on DVD or as a locked to Region A imported Blu-ray from the US, meaning that if viewing it in the UK/Europe you would need a multi-region Blu-ray player to watch it.
As a final note, the film’s official website is simple and yet effective; it harks back to a previous era of Flash based animated sites and its use of subtle undulating images and layered images reflects and captures the striking visuals and hallucinatory nature of the film.
- Woodshock – the official site
- Woodshock – trailer
- Woodshock – Peter Raeburn’s soundtrack
- Woodshock – the Blu-ray
- The DVD
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:
- Week #41/52: The Dark Pastoral Of Butter On The Latch
- Kill List, Puffball, In the Dark Half and Butter on the Latch – Folk Horror Descendants by Way of the Kitchen Sink: Chapter 16 Book Images
- Symptoms and Images – Hauntological Begetters, the Uneasy Landscape and Gothic Bucolia: Chapter 33 Book Images
- Audio Visual Transmission Guide #43/52a: Images and the Uneasy Landscape
- Week #28/52: Symptoms and gothic bucolia
- Day #149/365: Phase IV – lost celluloid flickering (return to), through to Beyond The Black Rainbow and journeys Under The Skin