Nine years ago Shane Carruth baffled as many people as he enthralled with his D.I.Y debut Primer, a fiercely intelligent low-budget science fiction piece in which experiments with time travel spiralled down into one another. It was an admirably complex piece of work from a man who was not afraid to pose conundrums or ask the audience to participate. You either kept up or you were left behind. It’s an approach which stands as an antithesis to the Hollywood playbook. In American cinema especially, few and far between are the directors who have the tenacity to demand more of the viewer than their eyes and ears. Lamentably – but understandably – it has taken Carruth this amount of time to fully realise his follow-up – the altogether overwhelming Upstream Color.
As before, Carruth’s single-minded vision is the result of remarkable creative control. He takes credits here as composer, writer, director, producer, star, camera operator and co-editor. I challenge you to name any other creative mind who dominates their own films to this degree and with this level of proficiency. Because before we get into anything else, this can be said for certain; Upstream Color is a technical tour de force. An exquisite collage that is the equal (and then some) of Terrence Malick’s recent efforts. From its angelic score to the sun-bleached visuals, the film slides through the viewer’s mind as though airborne, weightless and in some way transcendent. I’m aware of exactly how precious that sounds, but it’s hard to understate. This is cinema sent from the heavens. Every motion, every cut, every music cue is simply divine.
It is here that Carruth has matured the most. Primer was well-made and frequently beautiful, but it’s rigorous scientific eye made it feel clinical, methodical, precise. Upstream Color is just as focused, yet here Carruth’s patchwork storytelling feels freer, looser, more open to creative chance. The film bubbles with ideas, making every set-up feel imbued with inspiration. As we work toward the tricky subject of the film’s content, it’s worth emphasising its multi-faceted beauty.
Now for the hard part. What’s it all about?
Matching the fluidity of its images and immaculate sound design, Upstream Color‘s plot washes up in pieces. There is Kris (Amy Seimetz), a hardworking professional who has her life stolen from her by The Thief (Thiago Martins). He infects her with an organism that leaves her open to suggestion and manipulation. She signs over all her assets, has her personality torn away through psychological tricks, is left derelict and terrified, cutting herself to get the parasite out. She is saved by The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), an enigmatic pig farmer and sound recordist, whose silent presence throughout the film suggests a benevolent omnipotence.
There is Jeff (Carruth), a businessman with as fragile a grasp on his job as his own instinctual, residual memories; a fellow victim of The Thief’s manipulations who crosses paths with Kris and so their lives entwine in a half-realised understanding. Together they fall into a cagey romance fueled by a mutual desire to reinvent and redefine themselves, at once therapeutic and damaging. Their co-dependency forever on the brink of tumbling into a spiral of paranoia, lies and mental illness.
All of this uncertainty is seemingly wrought by the potent pigment of a rare blue orchid, which gives the parasite used by The Thief its strength, but which also owes something key to The Sampler’s pigs that themselves form a crucial part of this cyclical story.
If that all sounds decidedly sketchy and uncertain, then there’re two reasons for that. Firstly, I’m loathe to give too much away as so much pleasure comes from trying to understand how Carruth’s myriad images intersect. Secondly, as that might indicate, piecing Upstream Color together is a much more intuitive process than some may want or expect it to be.
Loosely the film can be divided into three stages. The first act cleaves the closest to a dramatic narrative as Kris is manipulated by The Thief. The film’s opening stretch is a feast of ideas and images, as unsettling as they are compelling. Here the film is tense, disquieting, the most recognisably ‘dramatic’. This gives way to the more ambling second act which focuses on the tentative relationship between Kris and Jeff. As this relationship blooms, and as the lines between the two of them start to blur, the film descends into it’s more demanding final act, as plot threads loop like the sparse dialogue and connections form as quickly as they fade.
Toward its end, Upstream Color is near wordless, but instead of feeling like a reduction, it feels liberating. So often modern films are merely fodder for chatterboxes. Taking away these constrictions, Carruth shows us things and asks us to make connections or decide how we feel about them. Some will find this far too esoteric for their tastes, whilst others will cry that Carruth’s movie adds up to nothing very much… And yet… And yet, there is a shining soul behind every moment here that refuses to diminish. It may not initially appear to offer obvious closure, but there’s an emotional resonance to the film’s final images that feels just right, and repeated viewings will reward the dedicated.
Throughout Upstream Color Carruth plays with synchronicity. People move in sync with one another or come unglued. Parallel lives intersect. Cycles are born, die and get repeated. In modern film there may be distant signposts in the likes of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind or A Scanner Darkly, but tellingly Upstream Color‘s most syncretic cousin is Carruth’s own Primer. In the space of two features he has marked himself out as a distinct and formidable voice in the modern film landscape. Upstream Color‘s amnesiac loops and dreamlike sensibilities will not please everyone, but for some they will come as a welcome tonic to the spoon-fed rigidity of most cinematic encounters.
Love. Lies. Rebirth. Rediscovery. Acceptance. Paranoia. Fear. Need. Synchronicity. Pigs. No matter how you feel about it afterward, you’re unlikely to see anything quite like this all year.