Woodshock directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy got their start in the world of fashion design, which explains a lot. What’s enchanting and enigmatic in a fashion-themed short film can be downright coma-inducing stretched to full length, and the sisters’ feature directorial debut is, unfortunately, the sort of overly languid navel-gazing that makes people skeptical of arthouse genre films, and arthouse films in in general. Viewers who thought nothing much happened in It Comes At Night are advised to steer clear.
Kirsten Dunst stars as Theresa, who we see sharing a joint with her terminally ill mother in the opening scene of the film. Soon after, the bed where her mother laid is empty, and Theresa and her partner Nick (Joe Cole) have moved into the house according to Theresa’s mom’s last wishes. Nick is a logger of some sort, and Theresa works at a marijuana dispensary owned by the bearded, menacing Keith (Pilou Asbæk), where she fetishistically fills, counts, labels, and generally handles small jars of pot, each making an AMSR-worthy “clink” as she places them on the glass counter. The rest of the time, she smokes the product of her labors, dipped in the contents of a small glass jar that’s the source of friction between her and Keith. A couple people die offscreen, some dialogue is exchanged, and some boards are hammered into a yard, which is very worrying for cryptic reasons. But mostly, people just stare off into space as Theresa drifts farther and farther from reality and redwoods sway gently in the Northern California breeze.
There’s no denying the Mulleavys’ sophisticated taste. The cinematography is as thick as plush velvet, each scene attuned to breathtaking color schemes that range from baby-soft pastels to Dario Argento-worthy splashes of jewel-toned color. The psychedelic effects of Theresa’s mystery drug are rendered in montages reminiscent of pioneering experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and the soundtrack is full of impeccably curated post-punk stoner pop that sets the hazy mood. But, once you look past all the hipster-luxe aesthetic trappings, it’s obvious that there’s no real there there. Character development and motivation are practically nonexistent, and the already-thin plot pushes ambiguity to the point of incoherence. It’s like Nocturnal Animals, if the whole movie were Amy Adams taking a bath.
Dunst looks great curled up in the fetal position on the polished dark wood floors of her mom’s house, or in the tastefully shabby vintage bathroom with pink ceramic sink, or out in the majesty of the forest. Artful inner tumult is an acting skill Dunst has demonstrated time and time again, from The Virgin Suicides to Melancholia. But those were characters whose psyches we wanted to explore. Here, she’s the boring, shallow kind of cipher, wandering around in effortlessly fashionable underwear. Putting a 21st-century stoner twist on leisure-class ennui is a great idea for a photo shoot, if not for a feature film, and the Mulleavy sisters have the ability to heighten the aesthetics of anything they touch. Next time, though, they should let someone else write the script.