Editor’s note: Rob’s review originally ran during Sundance earlier this year, but we’re re-running it now as the film releases on VOD tomorrow. And, not for nothing, but it’s still the best movie of the year so far.
Shane Carruth has twice broken an unspoken contract between filmmakers and audiences that says watching movies should never require you to think, work or do any of the heavy lifting.
A high percentage of film-goers and way too many filmmakers signed on to this arrangement, but small numbers of each stand strong in their defense of difficult and unconventional films. Those movies aren’t better by default, many of them are flat-out unwatchable in fact, but when they work, when everything falls into place… audiences are rewarded with something truly special.
Carruth chose not to dumb down his debut, Primer, and while the dense dialogue left many viewers in its wake, those who remained enjoyed a smart and tightly-wound little time travel tale at the heart of something more personal. His long-awaited follow-up, Upstream Color, sees him breaking the rules again but with a far bigger, bolder and more aggressively challenging film that for better or worse ups the ante in every regard.
(Contrary to some reports Upstream Color does in fact have a plot. It’s not the focus of the film, and Carruth himself has said the movie is impossible to spoil, but as a word of warning to the cautionary among you some limited story details follow in the next two paragraphs.)
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is attacked and forced to swallow a maggot that creates a connection making the subject, in this case her, susceptible to voice control by an outside party. She’s walked through a series of odd tasks at home before being instructed to essentially hand over her life’s savings to the man controlling her. She wakes up on the side of the road a week or so later to find her body covered in wounds, a puddle of blood in her kitchen and her life and career in ruins.
More than a year later she’s a new but lesser woman. She’s working a menial labor job, avoids contact with people and longs to understand how and why she could have thrown her life away. Things start to change when she meets Jeff (Carruth) on a train and eventually gives in to his persistent pestering for a lunch date. Both are reserved, intentionally sheltered people with damaged pasts, but if there’s any chance of recovering from the traumas made evident by their physical, emotional and spiritual scars it will be by facing together the unidentified and ethereal terror still hanging over their heads.
Myriad details have been left out not for fear of spoilers but for the love of discovery. The entire film, from the images appearing onscreen to the seemingly erratic editing style (by Carruth and David Lowery) and the use of colors as signifiers play with the concept of memory as a fractured and fluid thing. These elements are all best experienced first-hand.
Dialogue is repeated with slight alterations in tone or language and childhood recollections between Kris and Jeff become confused as to who owns which past story, but this is the nature of shared experiences.
The memories that hold us hostage with guilt or shame, that keep us shackled, unable to move forward or grow or find love, are not unique to me or you. The same is true of the desire to break free and recover from whatever that pain may be. Drug addiction, abuse, loss, religious indoctrination… the struggle to overcome and find your place in the world is the story of mankind’s escape from punishments often of their own design.
While the film is less than traditional in most ways it still features, and wouldn’t succeed without, strong performances from its leads. Carruth is a relaxed actor in general but brings the necessary intensity and passion when needed. Seimetz though is the heart to pair with the film’s otherwise intellectual skeleton. Amy’s journey of recovery is a both familiar and unusual, but it carries us along with building emotional investment that warms even the occasional coldness of Carruth’s style. As plot details and big ideas on mankind and nature swirl around it’s her fate that holds us in thrall.
This is only scratching the surface regarding the film’s methods and intent, and I haven’t even shared the details of my interpretation involving the necessity of separating from god and religion in order to find yourself/each other. For one thing you need to reach your own interpretation, but for another the one you settle on may be just as valid and correct. It can’t be wrong or right as long as it’s true to you. Which is also kind of the point…
On its surface Upstream Color is simply a thriller involving scientific experiments, narcotics, and a sound recording artist who dabbles in pig farming, but the specifics are interchangeable. It could just as easily feature a gaffer who fosters chinchillas, and it wouldn’t matter. The film is “about” things that are far less tangible than a traditional plot could encapsulate. You have to work a bit harder to put the pieces together and you’re responsible for the answers, but the effort is paid back with an exhalation, a single expression on Kris’ face and the recognition of it in your own.
The Upside: Visually poetic; finely effective score by Carruth; ambitiously big and brave themes; powerful and emotional gut punch towards the end; Seimetz is a gorgeous and talented woman (especially in her short-haired incarnation)
The Downside: Not necessarily viewer friendly
On the Side: Feel free to share your own far more fleshed-out interpretations of the film below