Film Review: Upstream Color

Nine years after the legendary no-budget science-fiction film <i>Primer</i>, one-man band Shane Carruth returns with a metaphysical love story that paints on a broader canvas but shows no great concern about being understood.

All the great romances are at their core about losing control—to the fates, to desire, to one’s worst instincts, to the simple joy of handing the reins over to another entity and saying: OK, you take it from here. Shane Carruth’s maddeningly vague and intensely precise mind-spinner Upstream Color is many things, but what it might be more than anything else is a story about how to reclaim your life. Or it might be about whether any of us have any control at all over the daily events and emotions of our lives, and how much of it we can ever truly illuminate and comprehend. It’s also a dark mystery of abduction and desire that might additionally have something to do with the relationship between pigs and humans. It’s complicated.

Like Carruth’s first and only other film, 2004’s Primer, his newest isn’t trying to actually answer any of those questions. Unlike Primer, a firmly locked and yet foggy puzzler of a science-fiction film about a couple of engineers who accidentally invent a time-travel device that has since spawned its own online colony of seekers and exegesis-chroniclers, Upstream Color has a wider sprawl and a number of mini-plots nested within an overall Joycean architecture. Its first third follows Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young woman attacked by a stranger who’s been crafting some kind of mind-controlling worm. After he forces her to ingest the worm (a terrifying scene shot in pounding rain), Kris becomes completely docile and childlike. After putting her through a series of hypnosis-like exercises that are akin to the earlier stages of induction into a cult, Kris signs papers and checks and walks zombie-like into various banks for the mysterious man who is never anything but a calm, commanding voice behind her. By the time she comes to, her finances are shattered and she’s been fired, not to mention forced to undergo a wincing transplant scene with a pig and a scene with a kitchen knife that could have come straight from the imagination of Eli Roth.

After this comparatively straightforward beginning, things get murky. Carruth himself appears (he was the lead in Primer; one imagines for budgetary reasons as much as anything) as Jeff, a striving office worker who lives in a hotel and starts up an affair with Kris. The middle third is half taken up with the halting forward momentum of Kris and Jeff’s relationship, and half with the curious activities of a curiously silent man (Andrew Sensenig) who spends much of his time wandering about sampling sounds and the rest of his time tending to a herd of pigs. There are intimations that he is somehow controlling the day-to-day lives of Kris and Jeff, orchestrating their behavior or at least able to listen in from afar. How much of this inter-dimensional gumbo is meant to be taken as reality isn’t apparent, but the parallels that Carruth sketches between the worlds (one headbanger of an edit cuts from the inside of a train to a metal chute meant to funnel pigs; the two look uncomfortably alike) are many and undeniably ominous.

There is a love story coiled through the tightly packed sensorium of data-rich ponderings that make up the DNA of Upstream Color. Kris and Jeff are drawn to each other by forces outside their control. Their dialogue is flinty and combative, like that of a romantic comedy where all sense of fun has been punched out. Carruth is one of those one-man-band filmmakers who not only directed and wrote the film but produced it, composed the music and did some of the editing; unfortunately, he should have known to leave himself out of acting in it. Seimetz delivers brilliantly, flitting from in-control young professional to terrified child to wounded victim to giddy romantic without missing a beat. Carruth has the right looks for the job—the two have the same brand of catalog-ready fresh-scrubbed attractiveness—but seems ill at ease with the jagged, overlapping dialogue.

Elegantly shot with cool, autumnal hues around Dallas and backed by an unsettling electronic score, Upstream Color is another unclassifiable and unique piece of quasi-science-fiction paranoia that will be ignored by 99.8 percent of the moviegoing public, and despised for its impenetrable density by half of those who see it. The remaining .1 percent will want to go back to its dark and thrilling well again and again, with no real hope of ever truly getting it. It’s a mystery that’s not meant to be solved, which doesn’t mean it can’t ultimately be understood.