At times Upstream Color will seem impenetrable and allusive, and at others it will make perfect sense; what remains constant is a mesmerizing and yet challenging film.
For all intents and purposes, Shane Carruth has completely disappeared off the filmmaking radar ever since his mind blowing indie sci-fi debut of Primer eight years ago. The only place his name has appeared since then was in the Thank You section of the credits in Looper. For Upstream Color the self-proclaimed “control freak” handles more than just the directorial duties as Carruth also; wrote, acted, co-edited, scored, and even self-distributed the film. At times Upstream Color will seem impenetrable and elusive, and at others it will make perfect sense; what remains constant is a mesmerizing and yet challenging film that explores the spirituality between humans and nature.
Near the beginning of the film, a creative professional named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is suddenly drugged by a mysterious thief (Thiago Martins) who uses a special maggot like creature that has a brainwashing effect. This leaves her in a hypnotic state where the thief has full control over her mind and what she does. Under his instructions, Kris empties out her entire savings account to him. A few days later she comes to her senses to find a long worm crawling under her skin. Another stranger takes her in, seemingly to help remove the worms, though ends up performing a surgery that exchanges fluids between her and a pig. It is nearly as bizarre as it sounds, although everything is done very technical and matter-of-factly that it looks believable in a sci-fi kind of way.
Soon after Kris realizes that she no longer has any money or her job, she runs into a man on a train who she has never met before yet is strangely drawn to. She learns that this man (Shane Carruth) suffered from a similar event that also left his past cloudy. Quickly, the two begin to bond as they share this intangible connection that they cannot quite figure out. This leads to the main plot of the film; their exploration into just how exactly their childhood experiences seem to blend as one.
The film itself plays out more like an abstract recollection of someone’s past than a straight dialog driven narrative. Beautifully lensed with outstanding stimulating visuals, Upstream Color perfectly illustrates the symbolizing connection between human and nature. Pairing wonderfully with the visuals is the masterful editing that keeps the pacing of the film in check. The editing here is extremely important as it cuts back and forth enough to simulate the kind of blurry state the characters themselves experience. The result is one of the better edited films of its kind in recent time.
Another part where the film excelled in was the score, which I mentioned before that Carruth himself wrote. The original music that he creates superbly compliments the eerie nature of the film. The score is ambient enough to not be overstated, but yet still noticeably enhances the tone the film aims for.
Upstream Color definitely calls for a second viewing to fully appreciate everything that is thrown at the viewer. But even then, I wonder if the film would still be fully realized. It is not that the film is impossible to decipher, but that it is shown in an abstract manner without a straightforward direction with somewhat dense storytelling. Perhaps a second viewing would also enhance the emotional relationship between Kris and Jeff, instead of the forced one that the viewer gets thrown suddenly into on the first watch.
By the time the credits roll, you will feel like you have just woken up for a multidimensional hypnotic state just like the characters in the film. There is definite method to its madness that purposely leaves the viewer a little puzzled with what exactly transpired. But the beauty of Upstream Color is that the film wants you to further explore all the themes, connections, and emotions on your own, and in order to do that, multiple viewings may be required.