Woodshock: Dunst On, Checks Out, by Scott Nye
In our fall preview episode, I somewhat glibly declared that the chief virtue of Woodshock would be the chance to spend an hour and a half focusing on how attractive Kirsten Dunst is. It had just premiered in Venice to extremely tepid notices and, having found the trailer quite fetching, I wanted to hang onto the one thing I could absolutely count on. Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s debut feature has quite a bit more on its mind than that, but I was reminded, for the first time in over a decade (since 2006’s Marie Antoinette), of what makes Dunst such a compelling screen presence well beyond her beauty. Few contemporary actresses are so attuned to what the camera can draw out of them, and how to express themselves through it. Fewer films seek this quality from her.
Dunst stars as Theresa, whose job at a medical marijuana dispensary gives her the inside track on a drug that her ailing mother (Susan Traylor) can use to peacefully end her suffering. Theresa willingly helps her mother through this, but struggles in the aftermath with her mother’s death and her own role in it. She goes through the motions with her boyfriend (Joe Cole), her boss (Pilou Asbæk), and whatever minor social life she has cobbled together in the wilderness of Northern California. But mostly she lingers around the house she shared with her mother and the woods she seems to share with no one, experimenting with a particularly potent form of pot that seems to draw her nearer to the edges of her consciousness, and perhaps to death.
The film is spare on plot, perhaps to a fault (I was surprised to find a character I could have sworn we were told died show up late in the film, quite alive) and one’s patience with it will likely rest on how interested one is in a) watching Dunst wrestle with the weight of the world and b) psychadelic cinematography. This is very much my bag.
The thing most of her directors, and certainly her more vocal detractors at the beginning of her career, misunderstand about Dunst is that her limitations need not be handicaps. She isn’t one to wildly transform, and she isn’t always the most convincing line-reader. She doesn’t fit many of the requirements modern cinema has for a great actress. What she is is a great cinema star. She plays for the camera better and more naturally than almost any other living performer. Her force of personality nearly requires directors to bend to her rather than expect her to do so for them.
Thankfully, the Mulleavys know this. There’s a moment in Woodshock where she kicks a door closed to put a wall between herself and her boyfriend, where she strikes the most dynamic position – her back to us, one leg extended outward to brace the door. The film doesn’t cut to her pre-posed; she finds this fully in one shot, perfectly accounting for the limits of the frame and the angle her leg needs to be at. Her expressions throughout the film, of fear and confusion, anger and determination, do more than a monologue ever could. She has a way of letting her eye catch the audience, addressing us as voyeurs, spectators, and confidants. There’s no sense of privacy to her work, and smart filmmakers – like Sofia Coppola, Sam Raimi, Sam Raimi, and now the Mulleavy sisters – give her a chance to interact with the camera and her audience. It’s sensitive work, both for her and her directors.
As with most debut features by visually-inclined filmmakers, the dialogue is often a little forced and the other performances perhaps a bit under-rehearsed. Asbæk makes a strong impression, and the film’s best drama beats pit he and Dunst together in a sexually-tense standoff. He plays straight a great many fuckboy tendencies. The Mulleavys are thankfully uninterested in reducing him for this scummy air he puts on, focusing instead on the qualities that make such men attractive enough to feel so entitled about it. Theresa’s push/pull with him is believable and raw. That he is as responsible for her mother’s death as she only heightens this uncertainty.
As the film gets druggier and more focused on Dunst, the more interesting it becomes. The Mulleavys share with late-stage Tony Scott and any-stage Guy Maddin a sense of how effective handheld images can be when overlapped, the blur it creates in one’s sense of space and time. Paired with ostentatious images like a neon marijuana leaf, they’re also not afraid of a little silliness in their grief-filled tone poem. They merge this all with simply-wrought, old-school special effects (again, as in Maddin). I don’t know that they necessarily used analogue rather than computer composition as Dunst flies and falls, but it has a handmade feel to it that’s very cool. The film really becomes about the desire to distance oneself from one’s sins or misery. The drugs allow Theresa the illusion of two lives, which the film occasionally makes literal in its visuals. Even Dunst’s proper entrance to the film, as she walks to her bedridden mother, anticipates this, as they look awfully alike. Reflections, fades, and superimpositions only increase and expand upon this idea. Far from an empty spectacle, they are embedded in its psychological conflict.
Woodshock in many ways feels like something thrown from the 1970s, with its keen interest in the woods and drugs, almost complete disregard for technology (I’m not sure I even recall a television), and utilizing a star’s influence to avant-garde, even experimental ends. We’re in a great year for name actresses wielding their influence for ambitious projects (see also: Personal Shopper, Song to Song, Planetarium, mother!); may such pleasures never cease.