Notice: The subjects of the movie reviewed in this article include substance abuse, clinical depression, and euthanasia.
What will you do if you could relate to no one yet everyone wants a piece of you and refuses to leave you alone? What if you are in perhaps a ‘well-meaning’ yet unwanted company and wish to be on your own, even if it means that they must see you going over the precipice? If you ever had to ponder such a thought, then you are not alone. Or, at least, this is the thought and the feeling you experience through a grieving young woman in a strangely arresting delirium called Woodshock.
The movie, which lasts only a little over a hundred minutes, is the debut feature of the Mulleavy Sisters, Kate and Laura, who are behind a haut-couturier called Rodarte, whose meteoric rise established them as a new voice for the industry. It is filmed exclusively in Humboldt County, Northern California, which is famous for its imposing redwood forest, ominous summertime fog, and seductively desolate coastline. It is also known for fishing and lumber, yet it has gained notoriety as the epicentre of cannabis culture in North America. Then, I suppose, it is rather unsurprising that the film is unconventionally disjointed just in the way a fever-dream is. Whilst Woodshock in its essence has nothing to do with the conventional narrative which dogmatically relies on plot and character development, let us pretend for a moment that it does, and I shall elaborate on what actually happens on the screen and what must have happened before the story began, in order to clearify the reasons why this is an outstanding effort from the first time directors. This is an exercise in redundancy, yet, given the universal condemnation this film has garnered for its perceived lack of ‘coherence’ and ‘substance’, it is a step that must be taken, in order to make a case for this excellent effort from the Mulleavys.
Woodshock intimately follows the descent of Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) in the wake of her mother’s death. In fact, Theresa assisted her terminally ill mother (Susan Traylor) in dying peacefully at home in the woodland. Grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, Theresa refuses to leave her late mother’s home and dwells there like a phantom. She does so despite the nervous discomfort expressed by her significant other, Nick (Joe Cole), who works at a lumber mill. He is a reliable yet emotionally disengaged domestic partner. He is laconic and aloof to the point where it is not clear whether he knows anything about the circumstances of Theresa’s mother’s passing. To his mind, he is the one who ‘takes care of her’, and to this end, all he needs to do is to provide financial security. Listening to her feelings about the experience of letting her mother go seems a completely alien concept to him. The only time he appears to be at ease is when he stays late with his mates at a local pub, sipping beer. It is blazingly clear that he wouldn’t be happier if Theresa could just ‘move on’ from her loss and grieving. Thus, it is not surprising at all that, after a brief introduction, Nick conspicuously disappears from our sight: he hardly engages with Theresa’s world. When he appears, he is only there to nauseate Theresa with his stubborn and self-serving simplemindedness: all he cares about is Theresa’s whereabouts, that is, whether she is ‘cheating’ on him. It is abundantly clear that he has no ability to think of and act on her best interests.
Still, Nick turns out to be half-right in his juvenile suspicion. There is another man who hovers around Theresa like a house fly in search of somewhere to land. The owner of a local cannabis dispenser, Keith (Pilou Æsbek), calls her back to work within what appears to be only a few days since her mother’s passing. Despite his all-too-transparent interest in Theresa, and his obnoxious mannerisms toward women in general, he has a better picture of what Theresa is going through than her hapless domestic partner. The problem is: it is not that Keith is particularly emotionally receptive towards Theresa. He simply knows what it is like to send someone to the other side, for he has done it quite a few times himself. It is he who provided the means for Theresa’s mother’s death. Whilst Keith’s intention is humanitarian in that he only assists someone with a terminal illness with explicit consent, he completely misreads the situation with Theresa by inserting himself in the middle of a devastating and very personal process of loss. To Theresa’s chagrin, the situation repeats itself: here is another man in her life who tells her what to do without any ability or the will to take her feelings into consideration.
It is not that Keith is wrong about euthanasia: like Theresa, the film remains ambivalent on this subject. Rather, it is how Keith talked Theresa into it, and why he made his case, that are in the wrong. It is clear that Keith was overly enthusiastic in his advocacy of his ‘method’ to the effect that he did not realise just how deeply Theresa was ambivalent to the idea, and how she would suffer as the consequence of assisting her own mother’s death. Clearly driven by his desire to be closer to Theresa, Keith pitched the benefits of his 'method' to the point where he may not have been attentive and respectful enough to Theresa’s fear and grief of losing her mother. Keith’s selfishness in relation to Theresa is plain from the way he insists on keeping her within his orbit despite her reservations. Once Theresa has assisted her mother’s death, he immediately begins to treat her as his de facto accomplice. He confides in Theresa, telling of their mutual acquaintance’s decision to die with Keith’s laced cannabis, thereby asking her not only to keep their secret confidential, but also implicitly asking her to act as an angel of death if an opportunity arises. In fact, by not turning up one day, he puts Theresa in a position to perform the solemn service to the aforementioned acquaintance, Ed (Steph Du Vall); he knew Ed would visit his shop and ask for the item any day, and he purposefully left Theresa alone so that she must fill in for him. Yet, this is not because Keith respects Theresa or that they share deep and implicit trust in one another. Whilst the practice of euthanasia binds them with their dark secret, their confidentiality turns out to be one-sided: judging from the wording of the condolences, another mutual acquaintance, Johnny (Jack Kilmer), learnt what happened to Theresa’s mother from Keith. And it is quite obvious that Johnny is yet another man who wants to be involved with Theresa. Whilst Johnny appears to be less demanding and intrusive than others, his interest in Theresa is unwanted. Yet, none of them are willing to give her what she really needs: to be left alone to be face to face with her ‘woodshock’, that is, her existential alienation from the world. It is clear from her monologue at the beginning: Theresa has been a ‘woodshocked’ person long before the story chronicled by the film begins. Her mother’s passing indeed intensifies her estrangement from the world to the point of catastrophe, yet the feeling of deep alienation has always been there. It is what defines her, and how she exists in the world.
It is utterly baffling that practically every critic was unable to discern what I have described above. Judging from their reactions and their condemnation of the film, it is clear that they simply could not get anything out of the narrative of Woodshock. They decried the perceived absence of a pretext upon which the story came to life. They could not understand why Nick is almost non-existent. They were appalled by the scene that involves a violent confrontation between Keith and Theresa. In short, they were utterly lost in the woods, and the irony of this phenomenon is not lost on me, for Woodshock is not about euthanasia or substance abuse; ultimately it is an intricate cinematic contemplation on alienation and estrangement from the world. Whilst ‘woodshock’ is a regional expression in Humboldt County that designates the experience of disorientation caused by being lost in the woods, the title represents Theresa’s state of mind well: she is completely estranged from the world, or from Dasein itself. And thus, the unintended effect of critics getting lost and disoriented by this film is despairingly comical. I find it incomprehensible that anyone could miss what I have described so far, yet it is also vexingly clear as to what went so wrong with their approach. There are a few reasons why they were so hopelessly wrong about the nature of this cinema and I shall elaborate in what follows.
Those who are hostile to Woodshock are lost because of their dogmatic and blind acceptance of what they see as the golden rules of storytelling, which places primal importance upon an accessible and gripping plot, and character development that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats. If one executes these rules well enough, a movie should be destined for box-office success. Given a chance, it will earn screenings at prestigious film festivals, and might even win an Oscar or two. In short, these rules are there to ensure that a product of financial investment is entertaining and appeals to the masses. According to this philosophy, every film must produce tremendous returns, financial or otherwise. This is no doubt the most fundamental ethos of Hollywood studios, and, given its complete grip of the market, these so-called ‘golden rules’ enjoy the status of absolute orthodoxy. As I elaborated in a three-part article on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, this attitude has a long history in the United States.
From a general historic point of view, this attitude toward storytelling is deeply rooted in American identity; in the name of democracy, Americans express an anti-intellectual attitude toward every aspect of life. American hostility against sophistication and intelligence means: if there is anything that demands even a rudimentary effort from the audience or readers, then a story must be pretentious and does not deserve their money. According to their idea, everything must be explicitly explained and they must be entertained in the process. As such, what they call ‘art-house’ movies are not the only victim of their hostility; given the popularity of motion pictures, eventually the application of the rules was extended to music, literature, and, quite literary, to every aspect of life. The American Form of Life must bend backward to the cherished ‘golden rule’ which states: The masses need not to think; they need to be entertained. Absolutely no effort should be required from ‘people’; they must simply sit back and enjoy themselves as life slips by them.
Given the zeal with which Americans adhere to the demand of demolishing art and moulding it into entertainment, it comes as no surprise that the blueprint for the cinematic ‘golden rule’ was first successfully developed and demonstrated by an American: D. W. Griffith’s notorious white supremacist propaganda, The Birth of a Nation (1915), is heralded as the first feature-length film in history and demonstrates the power of cinematic language to a great effect. It was also the first box-office ‘blockbuster’, and, at the time of its release, it greatly helped to legitimise the Ku Klux Klan by glorifying its heinous criminal activities and its violent ideology based on a viciously false representation of freedmen as vile and vengeful rapists. Regrettably the said ‘masterpiece’ set the box-office on fire, and according to some, after adjusting the values of currency, The Birth of a Nation could well be the most profitable movie of all time. Whilst a very few contemporary movie-goers know anything about Griffith and his role in the history of cinema, his legacy still lives on as he set the precedence and the expectations for what a ‘good movie’ ought to be. Albeit being blazingly false, the story is clear and accessible; it is based on an undying cliché of the confrontation between ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Moreover Griffith’s technique of artificially amplifying suspense and grabbing the audience’s attention was immensely innovative and effective in Griffith’s time, and immediately became the reference point for what one might call the nascent classical cinematic grammar which is strictly followed and sometimes improved upon by the directors of entertainment films today. Immensely popular and unimaginably profitable, the standard set by The Birth of a Nation became a creative formula for directors, a business model for producers, and an invisible norm for the audience. And, lamentably, since every art form is commodified for the masses, the consequence of ignoring or challenging such norms is quite severe. And, given the dark origin of this particular mode of storytelling in cinema, the passion with which the juries of taste attack anything they see as blasphemous is unnerving to say the least.
This intolerance for anything intellectually challenging further compromises the audience’s ability to appreciate the intricacy and the complexity of the world and our relation to it. When someone is so self-entitled that their righteousness prevents them from entertaining the possibility of being in the wrong in any way, there really is nothing from which such a person can learn. It is quite common to spend one’s entire life confined within a solipsistic personal echo chamber and considers oneself ‘free’. Such a person sees everything in black and white, and thus they have opinions on every imaginable issue, and they must be always ‘right’, even when the experts of the subject and/or the concrete evidence contradict the ‘Truth’ that such people embrace. The symptoms of cognitive dissonance have been widely and most strikingly evident in the United States for quite some time: somehow many Americans come to conflate their constitutional right, that is, the freedom of speech, with a self-entitlement of mere opinions. Giving a thorough examination of one’s own position is somehow a sign of ‘weakness’, and one’s opinion is judged not by the correctness of one’s argument, but by the degree of fanaticism with which one professes, in order to stand by it.
This is because the ‘Truth’ for them is a matter of faith, not the result of rational examination. They know the Truth in their heart, despite the fact that their ‘personal truth’, to which they claim their immediate and intuitive access, is a mere variation of pre-existing linguistic concepts, that is, public concepts historically developed within a given Form of Life. Since all concepts are historic by nature, they are contingent, and thus non-absolute. Yet, in such a solipsist Form of Life, they still insist that they know the ‘Truth’ and live according to such a nonsensical claim. It is nonsensical because they do not even know the meaning of ‘knowing’ and what it means to appreciate the limit of human knowledge. Ironically, in such a Form of Life, a discussion like this must be condemned as ‘intellectual gibberish’, and thus the confusion goes on to infinity without any hope of improvement, which might be seen as non-consequential, for the proponents of such crude thinking wish no cure in the first place. Therefore, in the land of solipsism, anyone who decides to do anything outside of a set of accepted norms would be publicly and severely punished.
Fortunately for some of us, there have been quite a few who are willing to transgress such norms to create fascinating works of all kinds, and sadly, for the most part, they have been made to pay a heavy price for their contributions. And, by giving birth to Woodshock, the Mulleavys became one of the latests in the list of people singled out for cultural prosecution. Fortunately, the condemnation of their debut feature does not threaten their creative career. They should be able to walk away from this instance without damaging their reputation as a new voice of the fashion industry. As for Dunst, despite the poor review of the film itself, her own performance has been universally praised, and thus she should ultimately emerge triumphant from this collaboration. This is a rare instance where the uncompromising creative risk taking pays off: whether ‘people’ like it or not, the film is done, and the Troika got away with it. Three women ultimately got their own way.
And what a collaboration it is. Whilst not all original works are great, Woodshock is a truly mesmerising piece of cinematic art. First and foremost, Kirsten Dunst’s performance is absolutely magnificent. She is tasked with carrying the entire movie, and she delivers. Dunst is not only captivating; she makes every moment and aspect of the film unbelievably alive. Whenever she appears on the screen, even the faint reflection on the glass pane assumes a life of its own. The degree of intensity Dunst brings to the screen is such that one forgets that it is an actor whom we are following; she literally moves and breathes as Theresa, and as her Geist. Woodshock is a film of great authenticity and immediacy despite, or rather, because of its dream-like nature. With her presence, every frame becomes a strange subjective state wherein Theresa’s thoughts and feelings, which are at once tangible and obscure, become the performer’s as well as the audience’s. Peter Flinckenberg’s cinematography and Peter Raeburn’s score contribute tremendously toward creating a rare cinematic expression of the mind of our tortured protagonist: it nearly turns Theresa inside out, yet not completely. With all the images of ‘hallucinations’, she remains an enigma and retains an opacity, that is, a certain degree of impenetrability that is necessary for the maintenance of agency. In short, Woodshock is a piece of near-perfect cinematic art that creates a category of its own.
That being acknowledged, it is not difficult to see some references and sources of inspiration in the imagining, drafting, and executing this gem. By casting Dunst as the grieving protagonist, Woodshock appears as the silent sibling of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). This impression is not completely misguided. In a sense, Woodshock revisits the subject of Melancholia, that is, grieving and depression, and perfects it by presenting it in its pure form without von Trier’s megalomania. Whilst von Trier imagines a personal crisis as the end of the world, the Mulleavys do not. They present Theresa’s descent strictly as it is: a personal catastrophe. As Melancholia enjoys the distinction of being the only movie about Götterdämmerung wherein the world as we know it actually ends and human species go extinct, the inflated overture with which he gives a cinematic expression distracts from the personal, intimate, yet no less serious experience of a descent to the abyss. In this sense, Dunst and the Mulleavys succeeded in completing what must be for Dunst an unfinished business. Woodshock sharply focuses on and captures Theresa’s intensely subjective and non-linear mental trajectory, with a kind of respect and tenderness which is truly rare. Whilst Theresa mostly remains in her late mother’s home, the poetry with which each moment is expressed makes the viewing experience intimate, yet not intrusive. Dunst spends a lot of time in undergarments, yet the gaze is not sexualised at all. A careful viewer should be impressed by the breathtaking beauty of the harmony between acting, music, and cinematography. One would never have suspected that a film about grieving and depression could be so lyrical.
In this sense, Woodshock is a movie which von Trier could never have created; his self-involvement means that he will never be able to truly respect his protagonist, Justine. Despite Dunst’s illuminating performance, the Dane can only see her as a piece in his ‘cinematic masterstroke’. Thus, Melancholia, with all of its captivating artistry and poetry, is an exercise of megalomania: to envision one’s minor apocalypse as the end of the world as we know it not only comes across as too indulgent, but also is symptomatic of the Dane’s ‘condition’. What von Trier expresses through Melancholia is nihilism, boredom, and contempt, rather than the genuine grief and depression embodied by Justine. Grief and depression make one feel insignificant, rather than inflate one’s self-importance. Given the context, I suspect that Dunst played a critical role in doing justice to this mode of existence: Woodshock allows the audience an unforgettable cinematic intimacy with existential alienation from the world. It is a moving tribute to Theresa, and countless souls like her, who suffer silently without any respite and understanding from the world that estranges them with its disorienting senselessness. Woodshock is not to be recommended for casual audience looking to be entertained. Yet, by all means, it is a great piece of cinematic art. Hence, regardless of the negative reviews it has received, we have plenty of reasons to applaud this creative feat. We also have another cause to celebrate: Dunst’s coming of age. She has been active for quite some time, and, despite her penchant for independent movies, she has been mostly known as a dependable performer in entertainment films. Yet, she has been as of late recognised as one of the finest actors of her generation. Her brilliance as Justine in Melancholia was recognised with the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, yet, more importantly, playing a clinically depressed character appears to have had a liberating effect. In the wake of Melancholia, she has been consistently showing off what she is capable of accomplishing as an actor. And she is preparing herself for the next step: directing a feature film. Given her accomplishment in Woodshock, one cannot help but to await with great anticipation for Dunst’s directorial debut, the cinema adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is said to star Dakota Blue Fanning as the protagonist. Despite the enormity of the project, I have every reason to be excited.