When a film distributor picks up a promising director’s feature, often it’s a show of faith — a down payment the distributor’s happy to make on that filmmaker’s next project. A24, the boutique distribution company that finessed ‘Moonlight’ all the way to the Oscars, is one of the shrewdest and most adventurous in the business. And its belief in ‘Woodshock,’ the archly poetic debut feature from fashion designers Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy, is best viewed as a down payment.

Kirsten Dunst in ‘Woodshock.’ (Merrick Morton/A24)

This one puts the ‘abyss’ in ‘cannabis.’ The setting is Northern California’s Humboldt County, home of gorgeous old-growth redwood forests, perpetual logging debates and copious marijuana. Theresa, played by Kirsten Dunst, works at a pot dispensary in an unidentified town (the film was shot in Arcata, Calif., among other locales). Her employer, a man of mixed motives (Pilou Asbaek of ‘Game of Thrones,’ unofficially known as the Danish Michael Shannon) has begun experimenting with a lethal variation on his product line intended for those seeking euthanasia.

In the early scenes of ‘Woodshock,’ Theresa bids farewell to her terminally ill mother. The Mulleavys’ film, which plays out like a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness collection of earth-toned images, follows Theresa through her grieving process. She shares her home, originally her mother’s, with a local logger (Joe Cole) and the glue holding the relationship together is running thin. The narrative, which isn’t really narrative-bound, includes the inadvertent murder of a key supporting character, but ‘Woodshock’ (a Humboldt County expression for getting lost in all those stunning Sequoias) is far more compelled by textures than plot devices.

It’s dominated, in other words, by shots of Dunst’s fingers, gliding across ancient redwood bark; double exposures of the actress twirling in the forest, or simply staring down the camera; and enraptured portraits of Dunst holding a piece of glass up to the sunlight. Now and then the Mulleavys capture a moment or glimmer of true mystery; more often, and certainly in dramatic terms, ‘Woodshock’ feels like a movie that never stops buffering.

Dunst does all she can. She taps into the wellspring of private anguish she brought to the screen so memorably in Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia,’ keeps this project from floating away altogether. But even in a dreamscape plainly disinterested in dialogue, exchanges such as: ‘How’s Theresa?’ ‘She’s fine, she’s just, you know — Theresa’ add up to dead wood and the opposite of an immersive cinematic trip. The movie turns you, the audience, into the one person at the party who isn’t high.


1.5 out of 4 stars

MPAA rating: R (for drug use, language and a scene of violence)

Running time: 1:41

In theaters now

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