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Review: Upstream Color

Shane Carruth's long awaited follow up to Primer is dense, bewildering and one of the few truly original films you'll see this year. James Tyas reviews.

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upstream Director: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Sensenig
Length: 96 Minutes
Rating:

Coming at the tail end of a summer bursting at the seams with sub-par identikit franchise movies, Shane Carruth's sophomore effort is a welcome reminder of cinema's ability to delight, subvert, confound and infuriate. In the case of Upstream Color, we experience all of these feelings, often all at once. Carruth's highly anticipated follow-up to 2004's time travel mind bender Primer is the sort of film that leads people to say things like "this isn't so much a film as it is an experience." And despite cringing the inherent wankiness of making such a claim, it is kind of true. Upstream Color is an unapologetically opaque and enigmatic work and is sure to leave as many viewers in a state of strangely satisfied bewilderment as those who will be quick to dismiss it as insufferably pretentious.

The official synopsis describes the film as the story of "a man and woman drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism." The reaction to this after first viewing is 'well yes... sort of' but it's entirely inadequate in describing the experience of actually watching Upstream Color. The film can be crudely interpreted to be about the stripping away of identity and how modern society dislocates us from our essential selves, each other, and nature; but this only goes some way to explaining the multilayered systems that Carruth sets in motion here. Despite bearing resemblance to Terrence Malick's more recent work, Upstream Color is one of the few (only?) truly original films you're likely see in 2013. After only two features, Carruth has garnered a reputation as one of the most singular voices in American cinema and despite having a much larger budget at his disposal than the $7000 he had to shoot Primer, as well as directing, he takes on the role of actor, writer, editor, composer and distributor.

Amy Seimetz stars as Kris, a successful visual effects artist who is ensnared by a mysterious figure credited as the Thief (Thiago Martins), who claims that he was "born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun." He drugs her with a parasitic worm that puts her in a hypnotized stupor. He makes her carry out seemingly menial tasks such as transcribing the entirety of Henry David Thoreau's 19th century novel Walden, before rinsing her bank account leaving her jobless and destitute, stripped of her material identity.

As the worm continues to grown inside her, she encounters another shadowy figure. He is a pig farmer/ sound recordist played by Andrew Sensenig, credited as the Sampler, who performs some form of rudimentary surgery transferring the worm from Kris to an anaesthetised pig. We later learn the the surgery has left Kris's reproductive organs irreparably damaged, as well as creating some form of telekinetic bond between her and the pig.

Traumatised but with no memory of the experience, Kris cuts a distinctly cold and distant figure, left to try and piece her life back together. She later meets Jeff (Carruth), a shady ex-stockbroker, who seems to have gone through a similar experience to Kris. As the pair commit to a tentative romance, they experience a mutual paranoia when they realise that they inexplicably share some of the same memories.

Carruth's previous career as a software engineer may go some way to explaining the clinical precision of his filmmaking process. It is this meticulous detail that dissuades you from yielding to the nagging doubts that there might be no meaning and it is all just vapid faux-existential hipster bullshit. Carruth offers no signposts and his elliptical editing style only exacerbates the sense of disorientation. The responsibility lies with the viewer to keep up. It helps that Upstream Color is visually stunning: it feels as though Carruth has obsessed over every frame. Sequences segue into each other unintuitively while the sound from the previous scene lingers on. Contrasting images are juxtaposed against each and visual motifs such as paper chains and orchids recur, all hinting at possible veiled meaning.

Seimetz provides Upstream Color with its emotional core. Her delicate, nuanced turn as Kris, especially in the near-wordless, cathartic third act, is essential to Carruth's film actually working: at moments where you struggle to comprehend what's happening on screen, Seimetz's affecting performance convinces you to stick with it, assuring that on a subconscious level the film remains compelling even if, consciously, you're none the wiser.

This isn't an exercise in ambiguity for its own sake though: there does appear to be an objective meaning to be decrypted. The problem is that it would probably take numerous repeat viewings to get anywhere close to fully understanding Carruth's dense, mesmerising work. The more hyperbolic praise for this film belies the fact that for many the idea of watching this film would be rebarbative, and even its exponents would grant that Upstream Color is more intriguing than it is a genuinely enjoyable. In spite of this, in an era where films often cater for dwindling attention spans that barely extend to the end of a BuzzFeed article, constructing a film that not only stands up to repeat viewings, but instead demands them, is something to be admired.

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1 Comment

Molly Sugden Posted on Thursday 4 Jun 2020

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