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I’ll admit I was hesitant about attending last night’s screening of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color during the opening night of the SXSW Film Festival. When the movie debuted at Sundance earlier this year it was met with an extreme mix of both critical praise and widespread confusion. As my day had begun waking up at 4:30am to catch a 6:30am flight from Los Angeles to Austin, I wasn’t sure if I could be able to approach the film with a clear and open enough mind. But taking the plunge, I was rewarded with an impressive piece of experimental filmmaking that may not be totally graspable after first viewing, but succeeds in capturing an investing the audience in its mystery.
Written, directed, produced, edited, shot by and starring Carruth, the story begins when a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz), is knocked out and kidnapped by a man (Thiago Martins) who exposes her to a biological agent that allows him to completely control her will. After stealing all of her money and dismantling her life, she returns to the everyday and tries to pick up the pieces, unaware of what has actually happened to her. Things begin to change, however, when she meets Jeff (Carruth), an enigmatic man who we slowly start to learn may have been a victim of the same process as her.
There is no scene where Kris and Jeff have a sit down to discuss the fact that there’s an oddness to their relationship and that some strange occurrence happened to both of them. Instead we see the shared scars on their bodies, hear them argue about childhood memories that they somehow both share, and watch as they connect in a way that seems to go beyond human. Rather than spell everything out, the writer/director instead lets the film’s aesthetic and storytelling reflect the alerted mentality of the leads. Scenes seem to happen out of space and time, as characters will be having a conversation in a building before somehow being transported out to a pig farm seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Montages move the plot forward while also toss around the idea of chronology like a rag doll, creating a disorienting effect. It’s certainly a difficult viewing experience, but a beautiful and captivating one all the same.
I didn’t walk out of Upstream Color so much confused or bewildered as intrigued. Anyone who has seen Carruth’s first film, Primer, knows that the filmmaker doesn’t make the most straight-forward stories, but that doesn’t stop them from being complex and interesting. Even with extreme focus not all of his sophomore effort will be clear or immediately understandable, but it’s a film that asks to be studied and fully absorbed over multiple viewings. I look forward to seeing it again.
For more of our SXSW 2013 coverage, click HERE.