After his indie hit Primer, the one-man-show that is Shane Carruth returns with an even stranger picture to delight or frustrate viewers. Upstream Color is part mind control experiment, sound design instructional video, and PETA ad, with a touch of Terrence-Malick-inspired imagery that sums up to be something even more abstract.
Finding meaning within the deconstructed story becomes a challenging task even when it seems the pieces of this audiovisual puzzle are there for everyone to see. With enough plot to keep it a narrative, the film is a sensory experiment on the nature of free will, rather than a science fiction film with defined rules.
After introducing a peculiar blue-blooded bug in the opening of the film, the story follows Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a young independent woman whose life is about to change by an obscure plot to rob her. She is attacked by a strange man who forces her to swallow one of said insects, this creature appears to have the power to make her easily manipulated.
Through a series of unexplainable exercises that include drinking water as a placebo for pleasure or copying entire pages from a book, “The Thief” (Thiago Martins), as he is credited, turns Kris into a thoughtless being. Taking everything he can, he leaves her for death only to be rescued by an even weirder character that will transplant her bug into a piglet. Confused yet? Hold tight, because it doesn’t get easier.
Some time after her ordeal, Kris has moved on, found a new job, and isolated herself from the world. When she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), she discovers they share more than a superficial attraction. Their romance is tainted by otherworldly occurrences that play with their subconscious, their memories, apparently, are part of a bigger plan. After excruciating sessions of sound experimentation, storytelling repetition, and fearful bathtub time, they will face their victimizer only to discover they are not alone. Heavy stuff that is more metaphorical than accessible.
Carruth packs his shots with symbolism that aims to create impending divine meaning. He plays a “try to figure it out” game with the audience by juxtaposing running pigs with the tight space in public transportation, as if to say humanity is as easily manipulated. The connections between humanity and nature are present through the film, even as the “villains” play God with the oblivious protagonists; everyone appears to be part of a chain that forces the viewer to rethink what consciousness really is.
According to Carruth, nothing a person knows is really independently created; every idea, desire, experience, or sensation is the product of the influence of external factors – nature or other humans. Sadly, such relevant ideas are under the surface, they are hidden by what it seems to be a deliberate want to confuse.
On the technical side, Upstream Color is of the highest quality. The cinematography adds to this beautiful mystique Carruth is going for. There are several moments that are really layered with exuberant visuals, haunting music, and on point performances, perhaps these make the film’s lack of clarity so regretful – it could have been something great.
The ambition is there; the sort of pretentious symbolism is also there, but the unanswered questions to the pseudo-scientific mechanics of the film will surely be far too off-putting for many. However, for anyone willing to not know what is really happening, and ready to feel, rather than understand, this work, it could be a rewarding brain-tickler sure to turn into a fierce debate afterwards.
Final Verdict: This could be one of those films for which people use the easy way out to put down an argument “You just didn’t get it”. Trying to “get it” is not what is in question here, but was it really necessary to make this a compelling film to make it so much of a deconstructed piece? Nonetheless, it’s a one of a kind evocative experience that will keep many scratching their heads with either frustration or bewilderment. One thing is for sure; no one can blame Carruth for not being ambitious in his quest to achieve cult classic status. Definitely a film that should be experienced personally, and with a mindset that doesn’t expect a satisfying answer for the questions it poses.