#DBW Finding Freedom in Grief: The Beauty of Mourning Explored in ‘Woodshock’

Collage by Courtney Cheshire


There are few films out there quite like Woodshock. The debut film of Kate and Laura Mulleavy, sisters famous for founding the high fashion house Rodarte, was met with little praise or even attention upon its release. Woodshock focuses on Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), a worker at a weed dispensary who, with the assistance of her boss Keith (Pilou Asbaek), creates a poison intended to be added to marijuana and then smoked. The purpose of their laced weed is to assist in the suicide of those in pain from terminal illness, including Theresa’s dying mother. After being exposed to the poison and consumed by the guilt of helping kill her mother, Theresa begins having vivid, visceral hallucinations and loses grip on reality, leading to the accidental death of her young friend Johnny (Jack Kilmer). This sends Theresa deep on a downward spiral and the guilt and grief consume her as the extended exposure to the poison eats away at her mind.

It’s easy to brush off Woodshock as an “art” film due to the Mulleavy’s use of in-camera tricks, grand lighting, and long scenes with little dialogue. Many critics and viewers chose to do just this. What many are failing to see is a tragic story depicting the cycle of grief and mourning. What makes Woodshock any different than the dozens of “sad girl” movies already out there? The Mulleavys’ treatment of Theresa’s mourning journey is decidedly different than what tends to occur in film. Depictions of women overcoming and/or dealing with grief is often split into two camps: in the first, women tend to cry and carry on for ages doing little to move on and becoming defined by their grief; in the second, the woman exacts revenge on the perpetrator of the cause of her grief. The Mulleavy’s take Theresa down both of these paths; she is most definitely defined by her grief, but she also seeks revenge on the person who she views caused her to grieve: herself. Likely because Theresa’s story is told by two women, she is allowed to be raw and even bad. Many male directed films telling the story of a woman in mourning elevate their characters to an unreal state of perpetual, beautiful sadness or an ass kicking avenger. The internal struggle of Theresa and her erratic actions is what sets Woodshock apart from so many films that deal with similar subjects. The Mulleavy’s simply present Theresa as she is, they don’t expect the audience to sympathise or demonise; only the individual can draw their own conclusion on Theresa.

Another key element of Theresa’s grief is who she’s mourning. The connection of a mother and daughter is unique and special and it is clear Theresa cared for her mom, yet the Mulleavys only hint at their relationship through a tiny voice over in the beginning. Throughout the rest of the film the viewer is left to watch Theresa interacts with only men. Coming from two women, this may be seen as an odd choice, but their presence alienates Theresa and makes the death of her mom echo even louder everywhere she goes. Rather than overtly go into details about their relationship, it is suggested through Theresa’s vacant interactions with all the men in her life. Through this subtle cue the Mulleavys highlight how important female relationships are, especially when a woman is going through a crisis. 

The last thing that sets Woodshock apart is the director’s treatment of the beauty of mourning. As previously mentioned, films will often treat the beauty of grief in an almost fetishised way that feels inauthentic and invasive to the characters. Rather than push the beauty onto Theresa, the Mulleavys instead make her hallucinations filled to the brim with striking imagery. Many critics simply suggested the hallucination imagery was just an excuse for the sisters to show their fashion world chops (something designer turned director Tom Ford has also been accused of), but this is a surface level reaction. The beauty of Theresa’s hallucinations hint to what awaits her when she releases both her guilt and her grief. At the end of the film she violently attacks and kills Keith. After this incident she runs to the woods and smokes a laced joint. She then floats into the air and the most vivid and rich hallucination of the film flashes across the screen: moths and flowers double exposed over the sprawling landscape; flashes of herself and Johnny lit lavishly, humming at erratic frame rates; and the dramatic ascent of Theresa towards the sky. Her suicide and the death of Keith absolve Theresa (at least in her eyes) of her sins, allowing her to climb into the afterlife freely. The Mulleavys’ use beauty to suggest succumbing to one’s inherent nature is the most beautiful thing of all; Theresa is responsible for killing three people at this point, but in her death she finally admits it.

Woodshock is a prime example of how much more effective a woman’s story and experience can be told by women. Though it is narratively loose and visually heavy, the Mulleavy’s effectively convey the emptiness and brooding presence of grief by allowing the viewer to be Theresa through the hallucinations rather than simply watch her.


by Courtney Cheshire

Courtney is a Metro-Detroit native. Her favorite films are The Last Temptation of Christ, The Blair Witch Project, and First Reformed. She’s a up and coming designer and has been able to fuse her passion for design with her love of film by working closely with British production company Rianne Pictures making posters and promotional art since 2015. She is obsessed with ducks, religion (despite her agnosticism!), and Ethan Hawke. You can see her work at courtneymcheshire.com

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