If you celebrate Mardi Gras correctly, it tends to require a lot of drinking, walking, and dancing in the New Orleans sunshine, which usually means you arrive home exhausted in the early afternoon without much else to do for the rest of the day. It was in this fragile state that I decided to finally catch up with the low-key psychedelic thriller Woodshock, since I had surmised from the film’s advertising & reputation that it would likely be a calm, soothing watch. Indeed, Woodshock does rely on the stillness & calmness of a mechanized slideshow to establish its calming, psychedelic mood. The film also obsesses over the low-energy imagery of redwood forests, spend-all-day-in-your-underwear depression, and barely-busy marijuana dispensaries as it slowly creeps up on something resembling a psychological thriller plot. I can’t exactly say that it’s a wholly successful film or even an overall enjoyable one, but I can confirm that if you’ve had a loud, busy day reveling in the oppressive North Caribbean heat, this film’s gentle, floral mood is the perfect cannaboid tonic for your physical & mental aches. It was serviceable as post-Carnival comfort food for me, anyway. In that refractory mental state, I couldn’t have handled much more stimulation than what it glacially delivered, even though I likely would have been a lot more impatient with it on any other day of the year.
Kirsten Dunst generously donates her time as the film’s lead, a weed dispensary employee stuck in a haze of grief after the loss of her mother. Torn between her blue-collar logging worker boyfriend and her need to recover from a recent tragedy in privacy, our sullen protagonist mostly just drifts through the frame in her underwear while staring at trees or the ceiling. This insular crisis is disrupted by an even bigger problem when her gloomy daydreaming leads to the accidental sale of poison-laced joints (meant for an assisted suicide patient) to an unwitting stoner. Haunted by her mistake, she rolls several poison joints for her own consumption in what proves to be a failed suicide attempt. Instead of dying from a monster high, Dunst’s flailing protagonist finds herself violently hallucinating and committing increasingly dangerous acts while blacked out under the laced devil weed. Unfortunately, her hallucinatory descent into violence & madness doesn’t begin until about an hour into the film’s obnoxiously padded 100-minute runtime and doesn’t amount to much thematically. As an experiment in double-exposure photography and a gentle exploration of floral wallpaper psychedelia, though, it can be occasionally rewarding. It also helps that the final shot is almost stunning enough to trick you into thinking you’ve watched something substantial, when you’ve actually just been scrolling through a depressive stoner’s well-curated Instagram profile for two hours.
I was frequently impressed with Woodshock’s soft-psych visual aesthetic. The everyday majesty of the film’s impossibly tall trees, prismatic light, and tragic bedroom gloom makes filmmaking feel like a natural fit for directors Kate & Laura Mulleavy’s shared background as fashion designers. The bummer is that the movie these images serve is wholly uninterested in searching for something clear, novel, or substantial to say. I’ve seen too many movies recently that explore similar thematic territory in a more fulfilling narrative, while remaining just as visually interesting. I didn’t care for the Instagram gloom exploration of A Ghost Story either, but it felt more committed to its reflections on the haze of grief. The Lynne Ramsay psych thriller Morvern Callar was just as reliant on striking imagery & a well curated soundtrack to loosely construct its narrative, but did so with a scrappy, cranked-to-11 gusto that Woodshock never manages to convey. Most significantly, the ayahuasca-themed drama Icaros: A Vision is incredibly deft at the way it mixes grief, hallucination, and calming meditation into a clear, satisfying story that puts Woodshock to shame. The only thing I can say Woodshock does that I’ve never seen before is reverently film plastic sacks of weed as if they were the holiest of Nature’s gifts to humanity. Pot is never half as interesting as stoners believe it to be, though, and the tension of whether or not a character will smoke a poisoned joint often comes across as silly at best, when it really needs to sell pure, devastating drama to make the movie work.
No one needs me to tell them that Woodshock is underwhelming as a whole. It’s already one of A24’s worst-received releases to date, destined to be quietly forgotten by time. All I can report is that the Mulleavy sisters do have a worthwhile cinematic eye that will likely pay off in better movies down the line and that if you’re looking for a soothing, post-party cool down after an exhausting round of day-drinking, it’ll do in a pinch. Just don’t watch it if you’ve got enough mental energy to be distracted by your phone or any other available stimulation. It can only hold your attention if you’re entirely drained of your capacity to wander off or look away.