Directed by: Shane Carruth.
Written by: Shane Carruth.
Starring: Amy Seimetz (Kris), Shane Carruth (Jeff), Andrew Sensenig (The Sampler), Thiago Martins (Thief), Kathy Carruth (Orchid Mother), Meredith Burke (Orchid Daughter), Andreon Watson (Peter), Ashton Miramontes (Lucas), Myles McGee (Monty), Frank Mosley (Husband), Carolyn King (Wife).
I’m not sure you’ll see a more ambitious film this year than Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color – a brilliant –sci-fi/horror/love story hybrid that starts out really creepy and disturbing, and then just keeps getting creepier. The film is told in a style that resembles Terrence Malick, but with subject matter than recalls David Cronenberg. And if these directors seem at odds with each other to you, you’re right, but you also haven’t seen just what Shane Carruth has up his sleeve in Upstream Color. This is a movie that forces audiences to think and pay attention – and I’m sure it will inspire some Room 237 like craziness in its interpretations. The movie doesn’t spell everything out for you, but if you pay attention, you can put it all together. People who want a linear structure will be frustrated (like the people who sat behind in the movie, who seemed baffled). The best way to watch Upstream Color however isn’t to try and figure it out on a moment to moment basis, but to let it wash over you. Like I said, I think everything in the movie makes sense, once you have the whole picture, which you won’t get until the end of the movie. But watching the movie the first time through, you will undoubtedly be baffled at some moments – and that’s a good thing.
The movie opens with what we assume is some sort of botanist, tending to his flowers, who may well be diseased, as he scrapes a strange blue powder on them. He also gets some maggots from the soil around the plants, and tends to them – discarding some but not others. What he is up to is not immediately apparent – but eventually it comes together when he meets Kris (Amy Seimetz) in an alley, and in an extremely disturbing scene involving an oxygen mask, forces her to ingest one of those maggots. He then takes Kris back to her place, and seemingly has her under his control – making her give him all his money, and take out a home loan against her house to give him even more. Eventually, he leaves her alone, and she goes to another man when she realizes there is something beneath her skin that she cannot get out – and he extracts the worm from her in another extremely disturbing surgery scene – this one involving a pig. When she finally wakes up, she doesn’t really remember either man. But she has lost everything.
This is just the setup for the movie – much of it involving Kris’ relationship with Jeff (Carruth himself), who she meets on a commuter train. Although at first it appears like he has everything together, while she is falling apart, eventually we realize he is just as screwed up as she is. Their relationship is seen slowly progressing, and falling apart, and then healing itself, as they two grow increasingly paranoid – but with good reason. Sometimes paranoia is justified.
I won’t go any further into the plot, because you really should see how Carruth builds it from moment to moment in the film. Also, if I tried to explain it all, we’d be here all day, and it wouldn’t enhance anyone’s enjoyment of the film – even if they’ve already seen it. Does it all make sense? In the end, to me, it all does. I’m sure if I was interested, I could watch the film over and over, and dig into each and every scene, and put together they purposely fractured timeline that Carruth presents. But in a film like this – like Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko or David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (or really, almost every other Lynch film) – I’m not really interested in doing that. The confusion in parts of Upstream Color is on purpose by Carruth – the film is ultimately about how these two people have to rebuild their identity after they have been ripped apart. They are confused, so shouldn’t we be as well? That is part of what makes the movie work so well. I don’t necessary view films like this as a puzzle that needs to be solved – that way leads to madness as shown in the recent Room 237. What matters is the whole of the movie, which no matter how you see everything interlocking, to me, makes perfect sense.
This is Carruth’s second movie, following his ultra-low budget time travel movie Primer (2004). That was one of the few time travel movies to actually take the question of time travel seriously, and think through the paradoxes it presents. Primer was a very good film, but Upstream Color is a great one. The film is just as brainy as Primer – a puzzle movie made for nerds like Carruth who has a degree in mathematics, and is more interested in science than spirituality – but it hits you harder on an emotional level as well. Part of this is undoubtedly because of the great performance by Amy Seimetz. In some ways, you could describe her story as a play on the old rape-revenge storyline of horror movies, except what happens to her is perhaps even more disturbing and traumatizing, and in the end, she may not quite get the satisfaction she thinks she does. Her performance is truly great – and anchors the film scene by scene on an emotional level. Carruth himself is quite good as Jeff, but he seems to know this is Seimetz’s movie, and certainly wrote the better role for her, which she seizes. An indie actress, along with an indie and director herself, Seimetz should become a star because of her work here, which is horrifying, layered, subtle and heartbreaking. I mentioned off the top that the film resembles the work of both David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick – and so it does – and yet this is no mere homage to those directors (and undoubtedly others). This is every inch a Carruth original – and along with Primer is the start of hopefully will be a great filmography.
I could go on and on about Upstream Color (who is The Sampler really for example? God?), but I think perhaps it’s best to end the review now before I give away too much. Upstream Color is certainly not for everyone – be prepared walking into the theater, because you are going to have to think, and you will be baffled at times, which to me, in a movie like this, is a supremely enjoyable experience, but to many if not most is simply frustrating. But if you get on Upstream Color’s wavelength – if you let it wash over you, and let yourself go with it, I think many will love it as much as I did. This is likely to be one of the best films of 2013.