I swear I’ve seen Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. When it was revealing itself to me, my eyes were open, my gaze directed towards the screen as I watched it once (and then most of it again a second time), my brain ready to soak up as much information as possible. When dealing with Upstream Color’s science fiction poetry, which speaks with spare dialogue and an assortment of consistently striking imagery, my brain was indeed not elsewhere. So dammit, I can review this movie. After all, if there’s one thing to take from how the late, great Roger Ebert reviewed movies, it was that he treated them all like films; worth discussing during a review’s word count, but not losing one’s mind over in the process if one doesn’t fully “get” it (remember his review of The Big Lebowski?) So, I can review Upstream Color … or I will at least try, as best as I can.
For starters, one can’t discuss Upstream Color without providing the unique background of its creator, Shane Carruth. Carruth is a very unique story in that he has only made two films in ten years, the last being Primer in 2004. That film has become a legend at Sundance and boosted the film to cult status among those excited about the new wave of low budget science fiction. With this film, which in an extremely general way is about time travel (there is an excellent XKCD joke about its narrative), Carruth wrote, directed, acted, edited, composed, did his own production design and casting and also was sound designer, all on a tiny budget. Indeed, with Primer, Carruth elevated the potential of indie DIY filmmaking, while opening up viewers to the type of concepts and genres that can be explored when using homemade qualities.
However, unlike a Sundance success like Steven Soderbergh, who went on to navigate Hollywood waters after his success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Carruth essentially disappeared, not making a film until the one you are reading about here. Since Primer, Carruth has been laying low. He is thanked in the credits of Rian Johnson’s 2012 film Looper, but for a collaborative scene involving images of time travel that ultimately did not make the final cut.
In terms of understanding Upstream Color for its surface experience, I’ve got plenty of its images. Revealing such striking images would only be a spoiler to the nuttiness they provide as the film unfolds, considering the lack of immediate context such images have when they are all put together. Upstream Color is a small narrative body with an experimental brain.
In the beginning, there is a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is brainwashed and/or hypnotized with a type of chemical that can be taken from worms. She is tricked by her captor to give away her money and told to do certain odd tasks like copy Henry David Thoreau’s Walden into crafty paper chains.
During this, there is a balding man named Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) on a pig farm, who labels his oinking products with nametags similar to names of people he has on a list (Kris being one of them). Along with gathering pigs, Sampler enjoys taking in some sound design of nature, walking around a wooded area to capture various sounds with a microphone and a mixer. Sometimes he appears as a voyeur to other people’s lives, like if he were a spiritual force, despite having an established physical presence in other scenes.
Later, post-hypnotised Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) on a subway and eventually the two are a couple. Jeff seems like a nice guy, but his history is also more complicated than he initially reveals. The two become romantic and then it turns out the two share more than just feelings, but also memories from before they even knew each other. Do these two have a connection beyond that of the present time?
As for meeting Upstream Color on its subtextual level, I’ve got themes, but I am not sure how they all fit together (into whatever weird shape one wants to assign to Carruth’s film). There are repeated elements of compatibility, control, creation, destruction, nature, nurturing, pigs and more. Rough draft stuff on 1 ½ viewings, I know.
However, with a film as bizarre as this, its meanings far off in the distance of multiple hours of meditation, the filmmaking competency and the distinctness in Upstream Color’s beautiful imagery does promote this film to be an intriguing puzzle that feels worthwhile to tinker with. When presenting such images, Carruth shows he has a great eye for lighting with digital filmmaking, providing a striking de-saturation to shots that have distinct use of sunlight (foggy is a common type of coloring for Upstream Color). It’s not just the characters who are mostly muted in this film of spare dialogue, but the clothes they wear, in an environment they interact in as well.
Along with this, Carruth shows that he is not interested in finding realism in a lingering image, (as done by so many of his peers), but instead the dream-like quality of many images being put together. Carruth is constantly cutting his film, giving each shot an average of about four seconds before moving on. The effect in cinematic terms makes the film run like an extended montage and a hypnotic one at that. But on a more mental level, it’s as if the images are assembled for an experience more related to the subconscious. The only difference between Upstream Color and dreaming is that at least you can watch this film as many times as you want. Both, however, can feel as unpredictable with its natural images, coming from a place in which concrete association is not the main intention.
Like other films that stick in your brain and lose their fogginess when given long discussions and repeated viewings, (such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master), Upstream Color is a mystery with an intrigue worth following. Maybe after I have such discussions with others who have seen it, and have watched it about ten more times and maybe have even re-read “Walden,” I should write about it again. And even at that point, the film may never feel entirely like déjà view.
Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 out of 5.