Commercial movies tend to do your thinking for you. Mainstream films follow such established formulae and spell out their plot points in such detail that you can follow them while checking Facebook and paying your bills on-line. Even films that demand the viewer reflection usually only want to lobby for broad sociopolitical issues.
Rare are the screen stories that demand the kind of focused attention that you regularly bring to reading a book. Writer/director Shane Carruth’s long-awaited second film, Upstream Color (2013), puts the audience’s comprehension to the test like few movies that receive any notice outside of academic film studies. Not only does Upstream Color require close observation to literally follow the story line, it demands intuitive leaps to piece together the artist’s intentions. Watching it is like rising to a dare: Can you meet the Upstream Color challenge?
Carruth’s debut film, Primer (2004), experimented with narrative perplexity to powerful effect. In Primer, two white-collar office drones work on a start-up business in a garage, only to learn that their invention can make time run backward. As they try to wrap their heads around what they’ve done, Primer’s first act plays like a symphony of technical jargon, thanks to Carruth’s background as a mathematician and software engineer. The dense language lends the film verisimilitude, and even lay audiences will be engrossed by the thrill of discovery.
As Primer unfolds, the men apply their time machine to such short-term gains as betting on sports. Soon, however, the invention disrupts their lives when their future selves begin to meddle with the present. By the film’s last act, the audience and protagonists alike seem hopelessly confused by the contorted timeline. Fan-created graphs of Primer’s plot prove that the film makes sense while also indicating its complexities. Carruth makes the confusion a virtue, conveying the characters’ loss of control.
Primer won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and then Carruth struggled for years to produce his second feature (note: originally to have been titled A Topiary). The project stalled, but Carruth was able to see Upstream Color to completion. Released on DVD, VOD and digital download on May 7, Upstream Color makes Carruth’s previous film look like a literal primer in scrambled perspectives. Upstream Color’s deeper challenges serve ideas that embrace a more expansive, positive attitude towards human existence.
From early on, Upstream Color shares with Terence Malick movies a fondness for short, dislocating scenes that convey the effect of dreams. Carruth also emulates Malick’s fascination with the natural world, and Upstream Color presents close-ups on the life cycle: from the water supply in babbling brooks, to gradually growing plants, to more simple organisms like worms and then higher mammals like pigs and people. The first scenes follow gardeners as they cultivate plants and meal worms for mysterious ingestible material. Bike riding boys stop for visit, ingest an enigmatic beverage and then seem to possess a psychic link.
Carruth then introduces Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young worker in graphic design, whose life gets disrupted when a stranger (Thiago Martins) accosts her outside a bar. Named in the credits as “The Thief,” he forces Kris to ingest one of the worms, which makes her utterly vulnerable to hypnotic suggestion. The Thief goes to Kris’s home, where he commands her to do repetitive tasks, as well as empty her bank account and exhaust her lines of credit. Kris obeys his orders while in a child-like state of compliance, making the sequence even more disturbing.
The Thief eventually leaves Kris alone, and as she regains control of herself, she discovers signs of the worms living underneath her skin. When she attempts to dig the creatures out with a knife, Upstream Color emulates the kind of body horror found in early David Cronenberg movies.
Meanwhile, Upstream Color trails behind a middle-aged man identified as “The Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig) who travels in rural environments recording sounds in nature. One night he sets up booming loud speakers on the ground, which first cause worms to rise from the ground, and then Kris to emerge from the darkness. The Sampler seems able to diagnose her ailment and takes her to a farm, where he transplants her worms into the body of a small pig.
Eventually, Kris awakens in her car with no apparent memory of the recent events. She can’t account for her absence at work or explain why she withdrew so much money. It conveys fears of identity theft carried to the most terrifying possible degree.
Upstream Color makes a confusing jump in time, and we find Kris working a menial job at a big-city sign company. We can only assume she’s started her life over after months of disgrace and financial turmoil.
While on a commuter train she meets Jeff (Carruth), whose aggressive flirtations leads to dates and then a wary romantic relationship. He evades questions about his past, but hints that substance abuse problems ended his marriage. Other clues make Kris suspect that he suffered the same kind of trauma she did.
At one point, after they’ve become an apparently happy couple, we see a montage of gentle arguments about their childhood memories, as they dispute whose recollections belong to whom. This confusion of their past histories could indicate that they have a psychic link, or but it also works as Upstream Color’s closest idea to a joke, as if people in long-term relationships see their identities blur together.
Long stretches of the film feature no conversation, and what dialogue the film offers seldom drives the plot. Seimetz still gives a remarkably subtle and delicate performance as a woman trying to contain her fears and find some kind of satisfaction. Carruth, however, proves more flat and colorless; even though he shares scenes with Seimetz, we don’t really feel that their roles have an emotional connection.
After Kris and Jeff share a sequence of inexplicable paranoia, Kris gradually seems to put herself on a positive path. At one point she swims in a pool, gathering rocks from the bottom and placing them on the edge, and she recites lines from Thoreau’s Walden every time she surfaces. Instead of seeming enslaved by hypnotic suggestion, it’s like she’s had an epiphany that unlocked not just the secret of what happened to her, but her understanding of life itself.
It’s difficult to unpack the connections between The Thief, The Sampler and the other characters who seem to be studying nature. The film may imply that Kris’ psychic rape and the massive theft was a net plus, ridding her of material encumbrances and setting her on a more harmonious, Thoreau-like road. A more literal, chronological film would be hard-pressed to make such points without seeming like a fatuous scold, but Upstream Color’s dreaminess helps it rise above such strict interpretations.
Carruth’s soundtrack features low, sinuous melodies that nearly put its audience in a trance state. Audiences must not only study Upstream Color closely to follow what happens, but also they must enter a kind of reverie to find connections between the film’s presentations of individuality and attachment, civilization and the natural world. Upstream Color demands multiple viewings to truly appreciate Carruth’s concepts, and some audiences simply won’t derive enough satisfaction to put so much work into it. Whether you find Upstream Color a revelatory experience or an obtuse one will depend on the viewer—but, as with any workout, sometimes mental exercise is its own reward.
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