Independent filmmaker Shane Carruth dropped his debut onto the festival circuit nine years ago - "Primer" - and then he fell off the face of the Earth. Nearly a decade later, he returns to the big screen with Upstream Color, and it makes the title of his first film appropriate. "Primer," a time-travel yarn whose complicated narrative spilled over the edge of every frame, was little more than a warm-up. "Upstream" is overloaded in an altogether different form. Its ambitions are much broader than those of his first film. It’s less a brainteaser than a deeply resonant head-trip.
Yet it’s also the type of movie that I feel needs to be recommended with a disclaimer: it’s a symphonic, borderline-experimental exploration of ideas ranging from the effect of our suppressed memories on our daily lives to our modern disconnect from nature. It’s told in three movements, and excerpts and passages from Henry David Theroux’s "Walden" tie it all together. Most people - the people who would be better off going to see "Jack the Giant Slayer" or "GI Joe" this weekend - are going to find it just as pretentious as it looks on paper. But Carruth wants you to leave your baggage at the door and give yourself over to his film completely, gaps in narrative be damned (if you don’t, you’ll certainly be left scratching your head). The borderline-Lynchian insanity is nothing if not calculated.
In fact, a plot summary seems almost counter-productive - the film needs to wash over you. All the same, I’ll make an attempt: Kris (Amy Seimetz) is attacked one night by a mysterious thief-botanist, who uses an oxygen mask to force what appears to be a specially cultivated maggot into her body. Quickly he has her under an hypnotic spell, which he uses to take away her home, life savings, and other belongings; as well as to force her to obsess over passages from the aforementioned novel, and create chain links out of pieces of paper that display its text (he also convinces her that his skin is made out of the same material as the sun). The thief soon disappears, but Kris loses her job and her memories. Her ’saving grace’ is a lone farmer - he spends his time investigating and manipulating sound waves - that harvests the worm out of her body and inserts it into that of a pig. Still with me?
It’s played out in unnervingly quick shots - cut down from what would appear to be longer scenes - that soon begin to cultivate a rhythm and logic of their own. Carruth’s approach is genuinely disconcerting; chopping together images of Kris’ bloodstream, her distorted perspective, and objective angles of her plight with abandon. His aesthetic takes what seems to be a Cronenbergian body-horror plot - and it is, indeed, horrifying - and turns it into something much more sinister. He leaves us as clueless as Kris is.
This allows him to move into the second movement; likely the film’s raison d’etre: Kris is forced to start fresh, and she runs into a stranger (Carruth) who seems to have likely been afflicted by the same parasite-scam. A romance blooms. All the while, time and space collapse: their memories begin to meld. The farmer begins to notice two pigs behaving strangely in his crop. If that’s not obvious enough, Carruth solidifies the connection with a number of match cuts, which only accentuate the musical elements in his editing. Their previous prejudices and experiences wiped, the two are affected only by what they cannot perceive. The third movement, where Carruth manages to move even further into the realm of experimental filmmaking - dialogue seems to evaporate - while also wrapping up his narrative, is probably best left undescribed.
One could say that Carruth’s thesis is that all human relationships are forged and also undone by prior experiences, past memories, and defiantly held beliefs. But one could also say that there are so many ideas floating around here - about concepts of identity, about our relation to nature, about drugs, about art, even about sound engineering - that reducing it to a thesis is a grossly unfair reduction. I have no doubt many viewers will get hung up contemplating "Upstream" on a literal level, and then proceed to not give a shit about the poetic or subtextual elements contained wherein. But if "Upstream Color" manages to burrow its way into your brain, you won’t be likely to expel it anytime soon.