Shane Carruth’s 2004 time travel drama “Primer” provoked endless scrutiny for its heavy reliance on tech speak that the director refused to dumb down. His long-awaited followup, “Upstream Color,” also maintains a seriously cryptic progression that’s nearly impossible to comprehend in precise terms, but its confounding ingredients take on more abstract dimensions. An advanced cinematic collage of ideas involving the slipperiness of human experience, Carruth’s polished, highly expressionistic work bears little comparison to his previous feature aside from the constant mental stimulation it provides for its audience. This stunningly labyrinthine assortment of murky events amount to a riddle with no firm solution.
The plot of “Upstream Color” is tough to define but not exactly intangible. Carruth strings together a series of incidents that alternately hint at a science fiction thriller, an existential romance and finally a dreamlike spiritual awakening. Amy Seimetz stars in a moody performance as workaholic Kris, a single woman abruptly kidnapped in the opening act and forced to ingest some kind of mind-controlling maggots into her bloodstream. Under the hypnotic influence of an ominous man, she’s brought back to her apartment and ordered to engage in a series of peculiar tasks, from memorizing passages from Henry David Thoreau‘s classic nature treatise “Walden” to folding paper into enigmatic origami.
All of this is a prelude to her captor forcing her to withdraw money from her bank account — which makes it seem as though “Upstream Color” were chiefly about mind-controlling thievery, but then things get really strange. Before she awakens in a daze, Kris is lured into a makeshift operating room where she undergoes a grotesque transplant procedure with a pig. Ominously staged with abrupt close-ups (including microscopic visions of worms crawling through body cavities that call to mind the cosmic imagery of “The Tree of Life”), the initial movement of “Upstream Color” conveys a kind of visceral body horror and imaginary medical antics on par with something out of “The X-Files,” but Carruth uses these circumstances to situate Kris in a place of extreme disillusionment — a state in which she stays when the equally low key Jeff (Carruth) comes upon her.
The two form a tentative bond haunted by the sense of danger hovering over them. Beyond the secrets of their private lives, they have a bigger reason to feel suspicious about their surroundings. A stern-faced individual (Andrew Sensenig), identified in the credits merely as “Sampler,” appears to control every facet of their existence by sitting in a field and crafting disturbing music that manifests itself in the small details of their world.
Aside from playing god, the sampler’s motives are perpetually unclear, but Carruth’s cross-cutting strategy between the man’s behavior and its outcome implies an icy grip over people trapped in the boundaries of their consciousness. Carruth’s official description for the movie is that “identity becomes an illusion” for Kris and Jeff, which pretty much sums up the challenge of sorting out each isolated event. This might be a frustratingly muddled venture were it not so beautifully enacted. Carruth’s effervescent, Phillip Glass-like orchestral score and delicately constructed images create an immersive product that’s unquestionably genuine even as it eludes firm answers.
Then again, maybe I missed something. There are enough clearly defined events in “Upstream Color,” starting with the harvesting of plant material in the prologue, to suggest a firm narrative about the capacity to transplant consciousness into nature and vica versa. But ultimately it doesn’t matter, because the movie makes it easy to get swept up in a largely wordless progression of visuals that symbolize its characters coming to understand the world beyond the tunnel vision of everyday problems forced upon them. Carruth’s fixation on prose from “Walden” points to Thoreau’s assertion that nature is the key pathway to understanding reality.
It follows that “Upstream Color,” which finds man, pig and flower united in a struggle to find the logic of a fragmented world, maintains the framework of a story purely as a vessel to explore transcendental ideas. In a larger sense, it effectively conveys the gap between inexpressible emotions and root causes. While the closing moments imply the outline of a conspiracy that explains everything, the revelations only hold together in the moment. Seeing as the greatest epiphany arrives when Kris rescues rocks from the bottom of a swimming pool, the prospect of nailing down a singular meaning that could resolve each thread in a neat package is a lost cause.
For that same reason, “Upstream Color” has its fair share of taxing moments. The persistently cryptic developments are intellectually exhausting — particularly in the final third, since the payoff comes from individual moments rather than their accumulation. Nevertheless, by abandoning the need for specific interpretation, Carruth nails the fundamental inscrutability of the universe while remaining in awe of it the whole way through. “Upstream Color” is routinely confusing but not oppressively so; its final exquisite moments explain little yet still manage to invite you in.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its head-scratching enigmas and divisive word of mouth, “Upstream Color” is bound to generate plenty of attention in the weeks leading up to the director’s multi-city distribution strategy in April. If that plan maintains low costs, the movie could generate a decent profit and eventually become one of the more talked about movies of the year.