Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a puzzling film. It’s beautiful, it’s interesting, it’s something else. An abstract presentation on the meaning of life, Russell and N tackle this review with their thoughts on Carruth’s film, his first since his debut with 2004’s Primer, a mind-bending puzzle box of a thing. Note: there will be spoilers.
N: How do you describe a biological entity as a movie? Like, the existence of being as a 98-minute narrative? If that seems appropriately heady to you, then Upstream Color is right up your alley. As the film opens, a man prepares some maggot-provided blue powder for a drink. Some neighborhood kids drop in and consume the liquid and become pre-cognitive to each other’s actions. A fight between them is unsuccessful because each is aware of the other person’s motives and actions.
Elsewhere, the man with the maggots and the stilted line-reads kidnaps Kris (Amy Seimetz), pops the wriggling monsters into her (for the film’s most unsettling scenes) and steals virtually everything she owns. She’s eventually released after her role in the scheme is complete and faces a difficult time explaining why she signed away all her property. She meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), who’s not really interested in anything she does, but they somehow wind up together anyway. Soon, they’re both melding together, becoming one with a strange, largely interconnected being outside their control.
I didn’t think Primer was impossible to understand, but Upstream Color actually seems like popcorn faire in comparison. Carruth pulls off the masterful role of performing nearly every task in producing the film and doing so in a relatively brief time. (He placed his science-fiction flick – A Topiary – on hold for reasons he hasn’t quite divulged.) This isn’t just an economical movie in the literal sense, Carruth shot on consumer grade Panasonic Lumix DSLRs, but in the sense that every scene has some kind of function. The practical special effects are amazing, probably the best I’ve seen in years. His smash cut editing style takes some getting used to as you’re almost intentionally thrown off the thread, but it all comes down to Kris and Jeff and their special relationship with each other and the universe.
I’m giving it a 9.
Russell: I knew I was in for a wild ride with Upstream Color based on early sequence. Kris is accosted outside of a bar and force fed maggots by a stranger. After choking the squirming creatures down, she becomes complacent. The man tells her to drive them to her home and she does so. He sits with her in her living room and flatly declares, “I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the Sun.” And sure enough, his face begins glow so brightly that Kris must avert her eyes. Throughout the course of several days the faceless thief manipulates her into losing her job and signing away all of her worldly possessions. Kris eventually returns to consciousness, but not before she comes under the sway of another man who removes the parasites from her system and transplants them inside of a pig.
What does all of this mean? Who the hell knows. However, it’s oddly compelling. Upstream Color may be somewhat opaque, but Shane Carruth isn’t engaging in the sort of haphazard doodling that marred Terrence Malick’s recent To the Wonder. Every element of this movie has a reason for existing, Carruth is simply challenging the audience to think, something too few directors actually do now.
As N described, the rest of the film centers on the romance that springs up between Kris and Jeff (Shane Carruth). We discover that Jeff has had his entire life upended in the same manner Kris’ life was wrecked. The two are immediately drawn to each other even though neither person can say why. Eventually they become aware of the alien force watching over them and attempt to solve their predicament. To say any more would spoil the journey.
If Upstream Color suffers any weakness, it’s Shane Carruth’s decision to cast himself as the male lead. Carruth wears many hats in this film: he directs, writes, produces, edits, stars in, and composes the soundtrack for the film. He’s to be commended for creating a film largely by himself. However, I think there was potential here for the subplot involving the burgeoning love between Kris and Jeff to pack an emotional punch. Amy Seimetz is absolutely brilliant in her role, but Carruth is just a little too distant and cerebral for his part. He doesn’t give a bad performance, it’s just a dry performance. These are two people who are supposed to feeling a range of conflicting emotions as their lives are casually manipulated by an invisible force, and yet Jeff seems oddly complacent about it all.
Upstream Color is utterly unlike anything I’ve seen since David Lynch unofficially retired from directing. Some professional critics are comparing Carruth’s film to the experimental movies of Jean-Luc Godard; however, I disagree with that comparison. As far as I’m concerned Godard was a pretentious hack who somehow bamboozled the cinematic world into believing he was a true artist while simultaneously trashing the works of his legitimately talented contemporaries. Carruth is being experimental without being lazy or haphazard. Intelligence and emotion drive this picture; it’s not merely pretentious masturbation.
At first glance I’d probably give this movie a 7, but it has woven a spell over me. It’s been nearly a week since I first watched it, and I find myself thinking about it more than many movies I’ve initially loved. I could easily find myself revising my opinion of this film based upon further viewings. I certainly do not disagree with N’s rating of 9.