In the spirit of his barmy debut feature Primer, Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort, Upstream Color, is likely to annoy as many as it enraptures, and frankly, it seems like the one-man filmmaking team (pulling duties of writer, director, producer, actor, editor, cinematographer, composer and distributor) wouldn’t have it any other way. Though certainly not as opaque or impenetrable as his clinical time travel excursion, this examination of life cycles, love and lies is a beguiling, overwhelming venture all by itself.
A young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped one night, drugged, and fed a particular type of maggot in the opening portion of the film. This interaction changes her personality instantaneously; she suddenly finds herself submissive in even nonsensical situations, as though under a zombie-like influence. In the aftermath of these events, she meets Jeff (Carruth), a similarly tortured soul who is dealing with a systematic breakdown of his personal and professional life. In one another, they forge a special bond of comfort, inexorably drawn together even if they’re not quite sure why.
The synopsis might sound vague, and indeed, like Primer, Upstream Color is a film that asks the viewer to infer much for themselves; exposition is provided for the bare minimum level of comprehension, and the rest is to be interpreted through visual cues between characters alongside phantasmagorical imagery. The first act of the film proves surprisingly easy to follow after the full-on mental work-out of the director’s debut; in fact, it isn’t until the hour-mark that things begin to get truly abstract. It’s at this stage that the viewer’s love for Carruth’s deliberate, meditative approach will truly be tested.
As will be surprising to few, this isn’t a film that offers up any firm solutions; the imagery speaks for itself, though practically demands multiple viewings just to make sense of the cleverly-edited visual asides and colour-coded objects, as well as the protagonist’s curious juxtaposition with a litter of pigs on a local farm. Though Carruth’s depiction of the circle of life seems straight-forward enough, coming to terms with the parallel between humans and animals proves a much thornier thicket indeed.
Even when the film is frustratingly resistant to viewers in act three, it’s never anything less than an engrossing experience; Carruth’s gorgeous cinematography lends the Kris-Jeff romance an unexpectedly cute, swooning quality not unlike that of a Woody Allen film, while the use of macro photography ensures that the headier aspects of the piece (namely its science-fiction elements) are at least beautiful while they’re busy frying out brains. The score, composed entirely by Carruth, is a mixture of ambient refrains and pulsing synth riffs that accentuate the atmosphere no end.
If Carruth again proves to be a potent not-so-everyman, it’s not to be sniffed at that he’s outdone by his leading lady this time; indie darling Seimetz guides viewers through the picture, conveying much through facial contortions and lingering glances alone, while the script craftily denies her the agency to give things away, even as we find ourselves begging her to.
Would a more definitive finale have been more satisfying? Of course, but in that instance this would cease to be a Carruth film; audiences will likely go in knowing what to expect, and appreciate the opportunity to work things out for themselves. Shane Carruth continues to grow as a filmmaker even as he remains keen to puzzle and perhaps frustrate. Upstream Color is, above all else, an unforgettable experience.
Upstream Color has its UK premiere at Sundance London on April 25th.
This article was first posted on April 23, 2013