I didn’t expect much when I gave Primer, Carruth’s 2004 independent sci-fi debut, a try a few years ago. Not only am I still struggling to wrap my head around it to this day, but it has definitely opened me up to giving low budget science fiction a chance (Moon & Timecrimes are just two of the many that come to mind). But time has proven wise, and instead of being a one-off director whose vision has been obscured by other shortcomings, Carruth has proven he’s more capable than many in the field today; like Primer, Carruth wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and scored his follow up feature Upstream Color.
It’s been hailed as breathtakingly beautiful. It’s been scorned as not having much direction and being to hard to handle because of its abstract nature. Whatever your take on it, I can assure you you’ve never seen a movie quite like it.
Upstream Color reflects on pretty basic human experiences: how we relate to other people through love and deceit, about forging one’s own identity, and about dealing with tragedy and life-altering experiences. It’s not easy to wrap your head around, and after two viewings there’s clearly a lot I still have to sort out.
Color is eventful but placid through its first 30 minutes. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted by a man listed in the credits as “The Thief” (Thiago Martins), who induces a trance-like state through the use of a parasite and instructs her to empty out all of her accounts while keeping her distracted by making her transcribe Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” We see later that “The Thief” comprises one-third of a cycle that includes “The Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig), who removes the parasites from their human host and transplants them to pigs on his farm, and the “Orchid Mother” and “Orchid Daughter” (Kathy Curruth and Meredith Burke, respectively). Without giving too much away about how they all connect, they form a triangle that traps Kris and Jeff (Shane Carruth) in a nightmarish reality, having been robbed of their former lives and all of their assets. Jeff meets Kris on the train and they share an unspoken connection, one that becomes more apparent and frightening as the film slowly angles up and takes aim at its climax.
It’s most likely a movie you’ll absolutely love or hate outright. It involves an investment from the viewer as you’re drawn into a world of sights no doubt inspired by the likes of Terrence Malick. So many aspects of human nature are confronted, and so few are explained. Themes such as a return to nature, with the role the orchids play in the end and the use of Walden in the beginning, Carruth himself has gone on record to mention his interpretation of the theme of breaking cycles:
“It’s more about what those pigs are now embodying. I mean, there is a break of the cycle. These people that have been affected by this are now taking back ownership of the thing that they’re connected to…I don’t believe that narrative works when it’s trying to teach a lesson, or speak a factual truth. What it’s good for is, an exploration of something that’s commonplace and universal — maybe that’s where the truth comes from.”
As Kris and Jeff grow closer and begin to lose a grip on their individual identities, I was left to ponder how I would respond if I were the one in this situation. How would I respond to the loss of my children, or the inability to have them? Would I get up and take charge if my life as I knew it was suddenly ripped out from under me like a warm, familiar rug, and I was left standing on cold tile? And the final scene – has Kris reached some kind of inner peace? The sun is shining consistently for the first time all movie, but has she really found conciliation in the face of so much confusion, despair, and torment? I’m glad that Carruth doesn’t take the easy way out and give us the answers. He forces the viewer to make up their own mind, even if they aren’t entirely sure what they believe.
What really sealed the deal and helped to entrance me, like one under the influence of those little white worms, was the soundtrack. It is elegant in its simplicity, but fiercely complex when accompanied by the stark colors and engaging visuals, and often manifests itself throughout the narrative as diagetic sound. Again, much of it was taken from nature and used by “The Sampler,” adding to its mysterious and ambient qualities, and adding to the theme I previously mentioned.
Upstream Color is worth submitting to. Its ambiguity is where it derives its strength, in asking us to face questions we don’t know the answer to. There’s no explicit solace to be found in the ending, but it’s strangely comforting knowing these characters for the hour and thirty-nine minute run time and following them to the end of this twisted tale of morality, identity, and loss.
“You can change your story’s shape, but the color will always bloom upstream”
The film’s tagline seemed hopelessly veiled at first, but it’s starting to make more sense. You can’t help what happens to you, and you can try to change it but those experiences will always be there to affect you, for better or for worse. The best part, though? I could be completely wrong, and that won’t do a thing to lessen the impact that Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort has made on me, and will continue to make, for quite some time.