‘Wood­shock’ ex­plores end-of-life is­sues through pot haze

Dunst, first-time di­rec­tors de­liver rev­e­la­tory story


For most of "Wood­shock," the feel­ings of its hero­ine re­main ob­scure. Whether at a party or at home, where she seems to be in a haze, it's as if she's lost in her own thoughts. Drugs could be one ex­pla­na­tion — she works at a mar­i­juana dis­pen­sary — yet there's a needling sense of some­thing more tragic, more sin­is­ter.

The de­but of writer-di­rec­tors Kate and Laura Mul­leavy, sis­ters who work as fash­ion de­sign­ers, has all the hall­marks of a first film, in­clud­ing one too many ex­per­i­men­tal flour­ishes. De­fi­antly in­scrutable, "Wood­shock" can test a viewer's pa­tience, yet the film­mak­ers' con­sis­tent self-con­fi­dence cre­ates an al­lur­ing, oddly hyp­notic ef­fect.

When we first meet Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), she's shar­ing a bed with her ail­ing mother (Su­san Tray­lor). Their whis­pered con­ver­sa­tion is terse, with a sub­text that Theresa is about to as­sist in her mother's sui­cide, with a joint of poi­son-laced mar­i­juana. Theresa is too with­drawn to grieve nor­mally, to the cha­grin of her hus­band (Joe Cole). She re­turns to work at the dis­pen­sary, where her boss, Keith (Pilou As­baek), tries to cheer her up. They need all the good spir­its they can get, since their most loyal cus­tomer (Steph DuVall) is also terminally ill.

As for plot, an ac­ci­den­tal killing and its af­ter­math — seen from Theresa's point of view — are at the cen­ter of "Wood­shock." Dunst is in prac­ti­cally ev­ery scene, and her fo­cus is so in­ward that all sup­port­ing char­ac­ters even­tu­ally lose pa­tience with her. Al­though her per­for­mance doesn't gen­er­ate much sym­pa­thy, it is at the same time mag­netic: Dur­ing one long stretch, Theresa wan­ders her home, in­spect­ing her fridge and mulling whether to take a shower. Is she de­bat­ing her own sui­cide? So high that she finds the no­tion of crea­ture com­forts far out? Dunst never fully re­veals Theresa, with the film build­ing an un­der­stated tone of cu­rios­ity about what she'll do next. It could be any­thing.

Through­out "Wood­shock," the Mul­leavy sis­ters re­turn, again and again, to strange, evoca­tive im­agery. There are many shots of Dunst com­muning with cen­turies-old se­quoia trees, their age and gar­gan­tuan size metaphor­i­cally dwarf­ing Theresa's rel­a­tively triv­ial prob­lems. The cam­era of­ten dis­torts the ac­tress's face, via re­flec­tion or neon light­ing, in a muted way that evokes the feel­ing of be­ing high. There is a point to these ap­par­ent gim­micks: We never get a com­plete un­der­stand­ing of Theresa's be­hav­ior, be­cause she doesn't have one, ei­ther, thanks to a fluc­tu­at­ing men­tal state.

If it sounds like n hal­lu­ci­na­tory, de­press­ing slog, two im­por­tant things el­e­vate "Wood­shock." The first is the per­for­mance of As­baek, a veteran of Dan­ish cin­ema and tele­vi­sion who made a strong im­pres­sion as Euron Greyjoy on "Game of Thrones." His per­for­mance as Keith is rel­a­tively muted and com­pas­sion­ate, yet there's a dev­il­ish charm to the char­ac­ter. He's the sort of per­son who in­flates him­self, not from an ex­cess of ego, but as a way to com­bat bore­dom. Then there's com­poser Peter Rae­burn's lush, haunt­ing score, which doesn't so much com­ment on or em­bel­lish the story as cre­ate am­biance.

It would be easy to write off "Wood­shock" as pre­ten­tious — weird­ness for the sake of weird­ness. But there's some­thing univer­sal about Theresa, vs., say, the stoned hi­jinks of Cheech and Chong. In­tro­spec­tive and with­drawn, she uses mar­i­juana as both cat­a­lyst and salve.

Sus­tained, chem­i­cally in­duced bliss can be a bless­ing, "Wood­shock" sug­gests, even up to the point at which the fog is the only thing left to see.

Two and one-half stars. Rated R. Con­tains strong lan­guage, vi­o­lence, per­va­sive drug use and nu­dity. 100 min­utes.

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