Shane Carruth became something of a geek idol for making Primer, a film I get the feeling a lot more people talk about than have actually seen. That talk mostly focuses either on how it’s really confusing, or totally not confusing at all what are you some kind of idiot and very little about the actual film itself.
Upstream Colour will undoubtedly launch the same kinds of discussions, which is unfortunate because there’s a whole lot more worth talking about here.
A woman, Kris, is attacked and drugged by a thief. He makes her ingest a small worm which appears to place her in a highly suggestive state, allowing him to make off with her life savings over the course of several days. After being forced to participate in some sort of experiment involving a pig she awakes with no memory of what happened, her money gone, her job gone and her life in pieces. A year later she meets a man, Jeff, on a train and falls in love.
What is “confusing”, exactly? In an age where so many of the blockbuster films that flit across our cultural landscape consist of characters obeying the illogical whims of incompetent screenwriters and engaging in jittery, poorly shot action scenes it’s almost a crime that this movie will inevitably be called confusing simply for having the temerity to assume audiences will be able to work out what’s happening on-screen without being told. Upstream Colour likes to drop the viewer into surreal, dream-like scenes before providing enough hints to work out how what you’re seeing fits into the overall puzzle of the movie, but the time until that puzzle piece becomes clear is rarely more than a few minutes. The film steadily drip-feeds little “a ha” moments throughout as repeating visual iconography and dialogue clues you in on the largely unseen workings of the overall plot and the motivations of the characters.
So yes, Upstream Colour “makes sense”, but it wouldn’t matter very much if it didn’t. This is a film that wants to engage with you using sights and sounds more so than plot, and oh does it contain some wondrous sights. Carruth films his subjects, whether they’re actors or pigs or a bathtub plug in close-up, allowing the background to fade out of focus and exploring how the soft, ambient lighting of the surrounding environment brings out the contours of the foreground object in a way that’s closer to sculpture than cinematography. Seemingly mundane or even grotesque sights like an orchid floating in a swimming pool or a parasite unfurling inside the blood vessels of its host are transformed into poetic, almost transcendental events in much the same way that Tree of Life elevated scenes of ordinary family drama to cosmic significance. Combine this with a camera that moves restlessly across its world and cuts sharply between time and place and you get a film that’s at once tranquil and filled with nervous energy. I really can’t emphasize how good this movie looks, particularly considering it was shot on a consumer-grade camera for a reportedly minuscule budget.
As for the sounds, Carruth frequently lets his score do the talking for his characters. Composed of drawn out, ever so distorted drones and tinkling notes, the film’s music overlays the micro of the visuals with the macro of a vast soundscape, giving the impression of a greater story that the viewer is only receiving glimpses of. To go into details would be to ruin it, but by the end of the film this becomes very appropriate. I want to particularly note how excellently the score works with the movie’s ending, an almost fifteen minute long dialogue-free montage that might be one of the most jaw-dropping cinematic sequences I’ve seen in years. I realize that comparing something to a music video may not sound particularly flattering, but much of the film has that sense of using music not just to accompany a story but to actively partake in the telling of it.
As the film moves into its second and third acts it becomes apparent that the script isn’t necessarily emphasizing the aspects of the story you expect it to. At its most basic level Upstream Colour is a mystery where Kris and Jeff try to untangle the events that have led them to the situation they find themselves in, but that’s not really the point. There’s no grand pulling back of the curtain here, no final explanation of what it was all about. This is a movie about weaving subtle connections through the viewer’s brain, pulling together seemingly disparate story and visual elements into a unified whole just as the film’s characters find themselves drawn together into a force greater than themselves. Exactly what form the movie takes once it has been assembled into the sum of its parts is left deliberately ambiguous and will likely differ wildly from viewer to viewer. I’ll admit to feeling a moment of trepidation at the introduction of the love story between Jeff and Kris, but their relationship is actually surprisingly adorable in an awkward, geeky sort of way. Carruth wisely decided to skip the usual movie love story beats to focus on the important highlights, and while Upstream Colour is not in any way a romance for the ages I found myself caring about its two leads and wanting them to succeed.
Carruth is something of a modern day renaissance man, as he directed, wrote, edited, scored and acted in this movie. I’d like to say every single one of these endeavors are artistic home run, but unfortunately Carruth’s acting is the movie’s only major weakness. He’s not bad by any means, but he isn’t great either and one or two of his more wooden line deliveries or Mark Wahlberg-style facial contortions jolted me out of the movie. To his credit he seems to have been aware of this, as the script was written to leave most of the emotional heavy lifting in Amy Seimetz’s far more capable hands. Like its predecessor, much of Upstream Color’s acclaim will likely cast the movie as the output of a lone creative genius, but Seimetz’s performance as Kris is a central component of what makes it work. She brings an inner strength to her portrayal of a character who could easily have been played as wallowing in depression and angst, a sense of quiet power that doesn’t fully erupt to the surface until the movie’s climax where Seimetz manages to pack an entire film’s worth of bitterness and rage into a single glance.
My greatest fear with Upstream Color is that the pedigree of its creator will encourage audiences to come to it expecting a mere intellectual puzzle, a narrative rubik’s cube to be solved for bragging rights, rather than the mesmerizing audio-visual experience it truly is. There’s a core of pure emotion in Upstream Color that transcends the machinations of the plot and which ca and should be experienced separately from rational analysis.