It took ten years for Shane Carruth to follow up on his well-received and cerebral sci-fi debut Primer, but after watching the deadpan Upstream Color it’s easy to understand why a decade elapsed between the two releases. After putting another project called A Topiary on the backburner, Carruth has had a busy workload to contend with, fulfilling the duties of writer, director, actor, composer and producer. He insists that his second feature was made without being tainted by even a single ‘molecule of Hollywood’, proudly tubthumping an independent film in the truest sense of the phrase.
This movie – which pretty much defies the usual genre categorisation – is a meticulously-spliced but often vague selection of sounds and images that sketches out a narrative and invites the viewer to join the dots. As such at times it is as fascinating as it is frustrating, dealing with the cycles and connections that exist within the natural world but also incorporating into its story a confusing (but original and absorbing) mix of drug dealing, theft, abuse, torture, genetic experimentation, love, infrasonics and pig farming.
Amy Seimetz is very good as the bewildered Kris, a graphic designer who is tasered by a thief (Thiago Martins) in a bar. He feeds her a small parasitic grub while she is unconscious – harvested from larvae found among the leaves of a special type of blue orchid – which drugs Kris and leaves her in a highly suggestible state. The thief gives her repetitive tasks, such as making a DNA-style paper chain where each link features a line from Thoreau’s Walden, and manipulates her into giving up her home equity and a collection of rare coins.
While being slowly released from her drugged-up state, Kris is attracted to a farm through infrasonics by a pig farmer named in the script as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who also happens to be an avid field recorder and composer. The Sampler transmits the worm inside Kris into one of his pigs, before releasing her. She wakes up on the side of the freeway with no recollection of what has happened, no funds in her bank account and no job after she is fired for her unexplained absence.
Later she meets Jeff (Carruth) on a train, and the pair share a strange metaphysical attraction to one another, while two pigs are also seen sharing a strengthening bond. Jeff appears to have the same memories as Kris, and it transpires that he has been through a similar experience. Meanwhile the Sampler finds that the pig impregnated with Kris’ worm has given birth to piglets, and he subsequently drown the animal. A strange blue substance seeps from the pig into the river, which causes the blue orchids seen earlier to grow. Kris and Jeff are affected by the trauma experienced by the pigs, and gradually begin to piece together what has happened to them in order to break this odd cycle of abuse.
While all of this happens in Upstream Color, not one part of it is explained in a clear fashion, and though it is not too difficult to make some sense of the plot it is vitally important to watch closely, listen and think; even so, you may find yourself searching other reviews and Wikipedia for explanations of certain details and interpretations, as I did. The film is a series of sonic and visual clues that need to be slowly pieced together by the viewer in much the same way that the characters have to, and this requirement of effort may put a lot of people off, but the experience is a rewarding one nonetheless.
Carruth shoots with a shallow depth of field and adopts a bleached, washed-out look, using a mix of soft and bright light to successfully bring to mind the woozy moments of a hospital anaesthetic experience just prior to unconsciousness. It also recalls the films of Terrence Malick, and that connection is reinforced further by the subject matter, an editing style that highlights thematic links but bears scant regard for the usual way in which passing time is clearly signposted, and Carruth’s predilection for shooting hands as they trail slowly across or toward organic and inorganic surfaces.
Malick, of course, is also the director that springs most readily to mind when considering the relationship of man with the natural world around him, and there are times when Upstream Color captures a tone similar to Days Of Heaven or The Tree Of Life, two other films that seem to divide opinion partly because of the director’s refusal to engage with set-in-stone filmmaking fundamentals, such as clearly-audible dialogue. Yet this is not simply Malick-by-numbers, and to suggest so would be disingenuous. The most obvious link between Carruth and Malick is that both are willing to make decisions that studios perceive as repeated attempts to commit commercial suicide. There may not be much of an audience for this type of filmmaking, but it has resulted in a breathtaking vision and Carruth has not compromised his fierce independent and artistic spirit in the slightest.
Upstream Color disorientates with its long periods of silence, repeated fades to black and sudden jumps in time and location. It confuses with its lack of names for all but two of its characters. Yet all of this is remarkably easy to go with, and watching the film feels like a hypnotic experience despite the occasional jarring cut, unexplained occurrence or unusual sound effect.
Kris and Jeff are fascinating characters, largely because we are not actually told much about either of them. Both are clothed in the kind of bland, tan garments sold by Gap outlets around the world, and their apartments are pretty much interchangeable: modern minimalism, beige, with a hint of IKEA floating in the air. The coffee table books on architecture are presumably just out of shot.
The characters are uprooted as a result of the drug dealer’s actions, and their sense of dislocation is compounded by the loss of their jobs (Jeff’s behaviour at work seemingly reflects the drowning of the pig in an unnerving fashion). Their offices are just as interchangeable as their homes and their clothes. There is little or no sense of individuality in the lives of this couple; even their memories are shared, leading to flirty and confused discussions as to who actually owned the rights to them originally. Friends and family are hinted at, but details are few and far between, which also disconnects the characters from the real world.
That said, the awkward early moments of their relationship – initial conversations, (presumed) first dates over coffee, nervous kissing – reflect reality in a way we don’t usually see in the movies, and as such it feels oddly unreal, too close to normality with the lack of confidence or charisma or charm on display. Carruth’s filming techniques are a perfect fit for the love story, which is eked out through a long montage of half-muttered lines, glances, hellos and goodbyes. Although we do get to see the important moments, Carruth doesn’t appear to be that interested in the usual steps (a), (b) and (c) of the fledgling relationship, and opts to concentrate more on the moments in-between.
The director weaves various strands of the plot together thoughtfully and skillfully – Walden being the tie that binds – and ditches others entirely and abruptly. It makes for an odd experience: at times it is drowsy viewing that requires an open mind to make sense of the array of images and sounds on screen, at other times it is sharp and visceral and gruesome, like being suddenly dragged out of a dream by David Cronenberg. Yet while it may all sound bizarre on paper (or on screen), the connections Carruth forges between sound recording, pig farming, criminal behavior and genetic engineering do sit together well and his film asks its anthromorphological questions clearly, essentially ignoring the traditional line that exists between ‘man’ on the one hand, and ‘nature’ on the other.
Upstream Color is a fine example of intelligent, brave and beautiful filmmaking, but it’s also a film that is more likely to be admired than loved. There are times it feels impenetrable, and it does require some patience, but there’s no denying how fascinating and unusual it is. Highly recommended for fans of Malick, the expectation placed on Carruth after Primer has now intensified.
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Written by: Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
Running Time: 96 minutes