‘Woodshock,’ ‘mother!,’ and the Troubling Timidity of Film Discourse

The directorial debut from the minds behind Rodarte is borderline incoherent and deliberately alienating, and that's part of why it should be seen.

We (and by “we” I mean Serious Movie People, film critics and scholars and buffs and so on) used to like it when movies challenged us, when they busted out of the tight little boxes studio product is expected to fit into and swung for the fences, consequences be damned. So it’s been a little unsettling to note the vitriol with which some critics and commentators have attacked Darren Aronfsky’s mother! (and I’m not just talking about Rex Reed and Kyle Smith, who don’t matter; I mean actual thoughtful people), a fabulously unhinged slab of crazy-pants pop art that was somehow financed and released, wide, by a major movie studio, and was subsequently reviled by the vast majority of its audience. So, put simply, Darren Aronofsky took a bunch of Transformers money and used it to make a bonkers movie that completely alienated mainstream moviegoers. This is the sort of thing we should be celebrating, fellow film snobs!

And now, nary a week later, we have another deliberately off-putting art film featuring a bankable ingénue; the film is Woodshock and the star is Kirsten Dunst, and as of this writing (the day before opening), it’s sitting at a meager 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, with exactly one good review. And the bad ones are merciless. THR complains that it’s “devoid of any kind of clear meaning.” The New York Times deems it “lacking in substance.” Vulture despairs of its “half-complete ideas.” Variety dismisses it as “an abstruse fusion of stoner cinema and slow cinema that plays to no obvious audience.”

To which I respond: Yes, and? All of these statements are varying degrees of true. That they’re deal-breakers for some critics is telling indeed.

Woodshock is the first feature for filmmakers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who previously gained fame as the fashion design duo behind the Rodarte brand, and it opens with what look like Melancholia outtakes: Dunst looking forlorn in the forest, accompanied by a dreamy voice-over (“Remember when we used to play in the woods together?”). What we see next is probably the key to the movie: Theresa (Dunst) carefully – artfully, really – rolling a joint. She lights it up and puts it into the mouth of her bed-ridden mother; as the older woman inhales it, Theresa’s head rests upon hers, and a tear drops from her eye. That’s a better single image than I saw in half the movies at TIFF.

It’s some killer shit, LITERALLY (hi yo); shortly thereafter, her mother (who was clearly suffering from a terminal illness) is dead. Some time passes, and Theresa tries to resume her life; she works in a marijuana dispensary, whose good-natured owner is perhaps a little too familiar. “You wanna come by Mike’s tonight? Lighten the mood a little?” he asks one night after work. “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea,” she replies, in a way that indicates a shared history that doesn’t seem to have turned out well.

Who’s to say why? Theresa’s not a happy sort; her marriage is strained, and she spends most of her time away from work wandering her now-emptier house, further withdrawing, and soon, her hallucinations and flashbacks begin to look like nightmares. In the hands of any number of other actors, Woodshock would have crumbled; an awful lot of this movie is Dunst alone on screen, thinking, sulking, mourning, getting high, and going a little bit crazy. But you can’t take your eyes off her – it’s her second performance this year that seems not only aware of her beauty, but of its baggage. (It’s also her second this year for female directors; insert “walk the walk” cliché here.)

The Mulleavys set the film in a strange time-warp; it’s centered on a modern, card-carrier marijuana dispensary, but everyone dresses and looks like it’s the ‘70s, including cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg. The images they create are stunning, dreamy, stoney; the edits are initially fluid, and become increasingly assaultive. The picture is never less than compelling; it’s often downright captivating.

And it fails, too, sometimes in big ways; as her husband, Joe Cole is a bit of a void, charisma-wise, and the Mulleavys really should’ve considered farming out the script (sorry, but any text that includes the Exposition 101 line “How long have we known each other?” gets an automatic demerit). But its flaws have little to do with its virtues, and if this goulash of stoner imagery and stilted interaction ended with a “Directed by Terrence Malick” card rather than “Directed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy,” the same critics who are sneering at it would be reaching for their thesauruses for “masterpiece” synonyms.

Sure, some of Woodshock is film school nonsense. But how often is anyone even willing to take these risks anymore? And, more importantly, how many more innovative artists are going to want to take them, when the current critical climate greets them with such hostility?

“Woodshock” is out today in limited release.