Shane Carruth as Jeff and Amy Seimetz as Kris. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for Upstream Color.
June 16, 2013
(Republished July 24, 2013)
Shane Carruth's Upstream Color might even be better than his previous effort, Primer. In the world of micro-budgeted science fiction flicks, that is akin to a miracle. The magic of Primer, however, is that it seems to improve on each subsequent viewing; its intricately engineered time-travel plot making more and more sense. It's too early to predict the legacy of his follow-up. Still, right now, Upstream Color can be enthusiastically celebrated as a marvel of sci-fi storytelling.
It's a puzzling and enigmatic experience, though the tale is not too dissimilar to those seen in blockbusters like The Matrix and Inception. They made audiences question the nature of reality, acting covertly as a religious parable and metaphor for the process of moviemaking, respectively. Upstream Color may not have their gargantuan action set-pieces, but it's not burdened by exposition either. Carruth verges on the border of economic and experimental when it comes to illuminating us as to what exactly is going on in his films. I feel like all the information necessary to unpack them is right there on the screen, and I certainly walked away from his latest with something. I look forward to going back and having my interpretation evolve over the years as his mysterious signposts and clues eventually reveal themselves.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth) are drawn to one another for reasons unclear to them, and painfully obvious to us. In the picture's harrowing opening, Kris is abducted, forced to ingest some sort of specially-activated maggot, and hypnotically compelled to withdraw all her funds and give them to her captor. She's eventually taken to a remote pig farm and operated on, leaving a little bit of herself behind in one of the piglets. When Kris awakens, her life is in ruins, and she has no memory of the trauma she endured. Years pass, and she builds a new existence with the equally troubled Jeff. They share much in common, including childhood memories, and certain sensations, such as abdominal pains, not to mention noises audible only to them. Occasionally we cut back to the farm, where two of the pigs have isolated themselves from the rest of the porkers...
So, Carruth isn't trying to particularly confuse us here. He indicates quite clearly what's happening, even if the characters never come out and explicitly say it. He lets his filmmaking do the work instead (as well as write, direct, and star, he also composed the score, acted as cinematographer, completed the editing, and produced). The sensory experience of Upstream Color is astonishing; its oppressive soundscape overwhelming in all the right ways. As a result, this is a far more frightening feature than Primer. It's also much more soulful. Kris and Jeff are lost, troubled people who have fortunately found one another, and their attempts to bring themselves and each other peace are hugely touching. Seimetz, in particular, is remarkable.
Don't be scared away be Carruth's sometimes-bewildering style. Upstream Color is not so abstract that it's impossible to find the very accessible and rewarding movie hidden within. It has been made with heart, and isn't for the unfeeling few who simply love to get tangled in labyrinthine plot machinations (the very same who dismiss any pictures that prioritise humanity over the occasional plot hole). There's a very real, very potent comment being made about our identities, and our souls, and what we keep referring to as our lives. It's also a cracking sci-fi flick; one that pays tribute to Ken Russell's Altered States, Alex Proyas' Dark City , the works of Philip K. Dick, and so many others. Upstream Color is a lot of fun, because all good movies are fun, and I encourage the brave and the bold of you to get lost in the maze. I feel confident that you'll leave with something.
Upstream Color plays the Melbourne International Film Festival August 1 and 5. It arrives in Australian cinemas August 22, 2013.