I can tell you, with conviction, that I loved Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. Explaining why is another story.
Upstream Color marks Carruth’s first directorial effort since his critically acclaimed 2004 drama Primer -- an intelligently constructed sci-fi experiment that, ostensibly, was about the dangers of time travel. And as with Primer, you’ll likely feel compelled to read as many opinion pieces as possible following an Upstream screening, requiring their help to noodle through the clues Carruth deliberately places along his refreshingly twisty narrative.
I might not completely understand Upstream Color, at least not after one pass. But I recognize it as a bold, imaginative, poetic and, admittedly, frustrating piece of filmmaking that’s always engaging and frequently beautiful.
The hauntingly gorgeous Amy Seimetz plays Carruth’s protagonist, Kris, who endures a series of hardships in this complicated, non-linear path. Her first chapter, if that's how you choose to divide her story, involves a kidnapping. Kris is abducted by a man we know only as The Thief (Thiago Martins). This criminal implants Kris with a mysterious worm, which boasts powers of mental manipulation that permit the Thief to con Kris out of her monetary possessions and leave her destitute. Kris is only saved when a mysterious sound engineer dubbed The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) successfully transplants the work out of our heroine and into an innocent pig.
Trust me, the weird stuff hasn’t even really started yet.
Upstream threatens to start making some sense when Carruth himself arrives on screen in the character of Jeff, a wandering soul with a checkered past who’s both a love interest and a possible threat to Kris. But to imply that Carruth’s story almost achieves clarity makes the mistake in assuming that “clarity” was ever a goal of the filmmaker in the first place. Gorgeous images and symphonic sounds move the story along with skill and grace. Carruth really is a talented visual director, and his Upstream score – which he composed – is a majestic hymn that stirs soulful, romance feelings … even if you are scratching your jaw wondering what, exactly, is at play on screen.
Could the baby pig dropped in a burlap sack and dropped into a river signify Kris and Jeff’s inability to conceive a child of their own? Perhaps. Did The Thief once manipulate Jeff, explaining how these kindred souls eventually met on a non-descript train, forming an instant emotional connection? It’s possible, though never clarified. Do you need a simpler story that’s eager to spell out all of its intentions? Look elsewhere.
Upstream Color absolutely deserves a look, though, if you’re exhilarated by the graceful symmetry movement, sound and performance are able to create on screen. Carruth offers Upstream audiences a puzzle, a riddle, a brain tease with an emotional payoff. But hidden in the film’s DNA lies confirmation that the fledgling filmmaker is a unique mind with a striking voice who happens to see stories unfold at a different pace than the rest of us. He is a composer who layers his “musical” measures side by side. Individually, they stimulate. And when they occasionally click together in harmony, the movie legitimately sings.