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Upstream Color Review: A Sundance Cult Favorite Is Back, And He's Glad You're Confused

Shane Carruth probably knew better than anyone that it would be near impossible to live up to his own Sundance legend. His debut feature Primer won the Grand Jury Prize here in 2004, blowing away audiences with its precise, theoretically accurate depiction of time travel, all within a compact story that was actually about the dissolution of a friendship. Primer made almost no money theatrically but slowly built up as a cult hit among movie geeks, all while Carruth remained mysteriously absent, his fan base growing by the year and wondering when he would finally return.

Upstream Color premiered today at the Eccles Theater, the largest Sundance venue, but it was clear the overwhelming Internet hype had not quite developed in the real world, where audiences weren't quite as frantic for this oddball film with no stars in it as they had been for, say, Before Midnight. But the audience that showed up was also brave enough to stick with it, even as Upstream Color started by showing its heroine Kris (Amy Seimetz) force-fed some kind of magical worm, brainwashed, then fused in some vague surgical way with a pig. From there she starts a new relationship with clean-cut Jeff (Carruth), and it starts to go wrong for all kinds of reasons, from the more traditional (they're so co-dependent they start mixing up their own childhood stories) to the truly esoteric (she's still recovering from that whole fused-with-a-pig thing).

As we follow Kris and Jeff's love story we also occasionally revisit those pigs, who are tended by a mysterious man (Andrew Sensenig) who also wanders in the woods recording Foley tracks and creepily hovers over strangers who may or may not actually be able to see him. You'd better believe that sounds confusing, but with its rhythmic editing, crisp cinematography and pounding score, Upstream Color flows along in a way that makes all this confusion palatable, like a music video with a thread of narrative occasionally interrupted by utter weirdness. As odd as the story can get, it's not at all hard to follow-- replace the pig-and-worm-based conspiracy with some other trauma, like surviving a bus crash, and it's essentially just a story about recovery, albeit one that takes every opportunity to throw the audience off with an unsettling closeup or narrative tangent.

In the post-screening Q&A Carruth all but admitted that the pieces of the experiment that Kris suffers don't necessarily fit together-- "in a sci-fi movie, we would explain it." But it's hard to know exactly why Carruth wanted to make all of this quite so unsettling, to disturb the audience so much in the beginning with this bizarre treatment of our heroine and then never come up with even half a reason why. Perhaps after the intricate details of Primer Carruth wanted to move into something more ambiguous, and there is a power in following Upstream Color's many bizarre turns and slowly realizing the answers won't come. But despite a committed and intriguing performance from Seimetz, the lead characters aren't well-drawn enough to give Upstream Color any emotional payoff, and impeccable cinematography and beguiling, exceptional sound design can only take a film so far. Carruth is a genuine talent behind the camera, but treatment of his characters as decorations within his wild world rather than as people makes Upstream Color more hollow than spectacular.

It won't be long before you have the chance to judge all of this yourself-- and believe me, it will be fun to talk about Upstream Color for weeks if not months from now. Carruth is self-distributing the film, bringing it to New York's New Directors New Films series in March before an April 5 release date. Consider all this initial confusion just the beginning of the conversation.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend