Upstream Color

by Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade

EXPECTATIONS: Depending on who you ask, Shane Carruth's debut feature Primer is either a brilliant experiment in DIY sci-fi filmmaking or a mind-numbingly pragmatic exploration of what to do with a time machine. I can't imagine anyone attempting to rehash something as convoluted as Primer, so I'm ready for something completely different, though I have no idea what it might be.

REALITY: Nine times out of ten, the films we review here make this job incredibly easy. The stories are fed to us in a spoon, the characters state everything they're thinking, and the metaphors are obvious and easy to pick out. Then a film like Upstream Color comes along to remind us just how much of that we take for granted. The purpose of, and meaning behind, this film isn't immediately apparent, but the experience it offers is undeniably unique.

The plot concerns two people finding each other and falling in love as they both come to terms with an unknown force that is clandestinely controlling their lives. That's as much of the plot as I can give you without making ridiculous assumptions or simply copying down the film's publicity information. And even that wouldn't help. The official term used to describe the unseen force I mentioned is "an ageless organism." Parasites? Aliens? The natural life cycle of the Earth? This part is open to interpretation, though the film does at least make an attempt to account for its own weirdness.

You haven't quite figured out the correct procedure for bathtime yet, have you?

As Upstream Color rolls on, the pieces don't necessarily fall into place the way you might expect them to. In fact, the film leaves us to make all the connections ourselves. First, we meet Kris (Amy Seimetz), a filmmaker who is kidnapped by a mysterious man who explains that his head is "made from the same material as the sun." He feeds Kris a worm that takes over her mind and body, and then brainwashes her into signing over her entire life savings. As Kris' life is abruptly ruined, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), who has presumably experienced a very similar ordeal.

Interspersed with Jeff and Kris' burgeoning relationship are scenes of a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who is referred to as The Sampler. This man pulls double duty, as he not only tends to pigs that somehow share a psychic link with Jeff and Kris, but also spends his time harvesting sounds with a recorder. The Sampler's role in all of this is a bit unclear, especially as he experiments with the sounds of rocks banging against a pipe. It's like we're briefly watching the filmmaker himself tinker with which sounds will affect his audience the most.

Stylistically, Upstream Color is captivating. Comparisons to Terrence Malick are inescapable, as there's a fluidity to Carruth's storytelling that feels absolutely lyrical. The film establishes its rhythms, then repeats itself once or twice before ending on a note that leaves us wanting the song to play again. Actually, that analogy is pretty apt considering Shane Carruth also composed the film's score himself.

And if the rhythms of Upstream Color recall The Tree of Life, the film's pace and performances are like something straight out of a Godard film. The way Carruth cuts back and forth between Jeff, Kris and The Sampler keeps the film brisk whenever it threatens to sag. The editing is swift, almost mechanical, but like the production as a whole, it gives us the sense that we're in the hands of a filmmaker who knows exactly where all of this is going. There's probably a spiritual metaphor for existence in there somewhere. Unlike The Tree of Life, though, there is an underlying darkness to Carruth's film that lingers long after the credits have rolled.

The lives of these characters have been irrevocably ruined by forces beyond their control, and the process these forces use to maintain themselves is quietly disturbing. When The Sampler kills a litter of newborn piglets, Kris and Jeff are absolutely devastated, but we soon see that this death breeds a new kind of life. That's the key to the entire film. Ultimately, Upstream Color is about living with loss and finding ways to move past it.

Shane Carruth spent the years between Primer and Upstream Color developing a film titled A Topiary that eventually fizzled out due to financing woes. He later called it "the thing I basically wasted my whole life on," so it's not hard to see how some of that disappointment might have fueled a film about recovering from tragedy. That the tragedy involves parasitic worms is either a biting commentary on the way Hollywood works, or... No, that's probably exactly what it is.

This is a film that practically demands to be seen twice. On the first viewing, Carruth opens up his giant jigsaw puzzle and dumps it straight into your brain. On the second, he leaves you to sort out the pieces and cobble together the narrative for yourself. It's all there in the film, of course. This isn't a case where the viewer is asked to fill in all the gaps that the filmmaker accidentally left blank. Shane Carruth knows his story, and he knows how everything ought to fit, but he's not particularly interested in holding your hand as you watch his movie.

Shane Carruth's Story8/10
Shane Carruth's Music10/10
Shane Carruth's Performance7/10
Shane Carruth's Cinematography9/10
Shane Carruth's Fascination With WaldenHe Basically Made This Entire Film By Himself (+6)

MINORITY REPORT: If this is anything like Primer, I look forward to having no clue what any of the characters are talking about while great cinema happens around them. That's all that matters in the end. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison

- The Official Current Releases Facebook

– Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade (@JayDubSA)

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