For the first thirty minutes or so, “Upstream Color” was the best movie I’d seen this year. An ordinary young woman (Amy Seimetz) with an ordinary job in an ordinary city is at an ordinary bar when an ordinary looking guy (Thiago Martins) sidles up to her on line for the restroom and plunges her life into insanity. Injected with some kind of mind-controlling worm, the woman — Kris — loses everything; the ordinary looking guy, unnamed but credited as “Thief,” uses his magic mind-worm to strip Kris of her money and possessions. After days or possibly weeks as the man’s unwilling slave, the thief leaves and Kris awakens with no memory of what she’s done, including emptying out her bank account and signing over the equity from her home.
The audience has witnessed it all, but we remain as disoriented as Kris. That’s because “Upstream Color” is the new film from Shane Carruth, the directing prodigy who previously made 2004’s cult time travel tale “Primer” and who specializes in a cinema of disorientation. To watch a Shane Carruth movie is to be handed a puzzle without any instructions and forced to solve it while blindfolded. Carruth, who worked as an engineer before he followed his passion into filmmaking and produced “Primer” for just $7,000, has very little use for dialogue, particularly of the expository variety. In “Primer,” a pair of ambitious scientists sit around discussing physics and stock market theory while inadvertently building a time machine. They try to use it for personal gain but quickly fall prey to its ethical and moral — and especially chronological — complications. What these time travelers are doing is generally clear, but the specifics are not, and neither are their conversations, which are pitched roughly 500 feet over the viewer’s head.
The early scenes of “Upstream Color” plunge us into a classic Carruthian mystery: who is this woman? Why has she been targeted? What is this thief after besides money? Are the people we see him fraternizing with just before he attacks Kris some kind of a cult? And how can a worm control your mind? In the nine years since “Primer,” Carruth’s skill as a filmmaker has increased significantly, and his first movie’s utilitarian pictures and sometimes unintelligible audio track have been replaced by lush soft-focus digital photography and a hauntingly dense soundscape. We’re lost, but happily so. It’s heady, exciting stuff, and Kris’ plight and all its attendant vulnerability evokes deep, universal fears about the tenuousness of our lives.
That’s the first thirty minutes. Then “Upstream Color” becomes something else. Instead of bringing us further into this world of mind-control worms and the pig farm that is somehow also part of the film’s truly fucked up circle of life, “Upstream Color” tangents into arty romantic drama. After a few elliptical cuts, Kris is already back at square one: broke, alone, commuting to another job, a hollow shell of the person she was. She’s spotted on her daily train ride to work by Jeff (Carruth). He follows her, introduces himself. They get coffee. She slowly reveals her dark past, a deal breaker she assumes. But Jeff has demons of his own; possibly mind-worm shaped demons. They’re sort of perfect for each other. They fall in love.
But if Kris and Jeff are a perfect match, Seimetz and Carruth are not, and it’s here where our director becomes his own worst enemy — as an actor. With sharp, angular features and an impressively diverse wardrobe of scarves and skinny jackets, Carruth has the requisite quirkily handsome good looks to play Jeff. But the background in engineering and computer science that serves him so well as a constructor of intricately plotted cinematic enigmas hasn’t equipped him to shoulder the emotional burdens of playing the leading man in a story Carruth’s described in interviews as a journey into “the romantic promise that exists when characters are broken to their core.” Bluntly, the only thing broken here are those promises of romance; when Carruth and Seimtez’s are together onscreen the movie falls apart almost as quickly as the characters’ lives. Kris and Jeff seem too lost in their own little worlds — “Why does she keep quoting ‘Walden?'” “Why does he have the same memories as her?” — to ever connect with one another.
As Kris and Jeff’s relationship deepens (at least theoretically), so too does the mystery of just what happened when the thief stole Kris’ life, and how he is connected to another inscrutable man who relieves Kris of her mind-worm and then does something with it at the aforementioned pig farm that probably qualifies as a spoiler. As “Primer” fans might expect, Carruth reveals things very discreetly. That’s actually a more thematically appropriate tact in “Upstream Color” than in “Primer” because this time his characters are just as confused as we are. But when a screenplay leaves this much unsaid, you need actors expressive enough to fill in the details — and, at least from my perspective, Carruth isn’t really up to the challenge.
In the film’s final third, “Upstream” punts whatever narrative it had left for an increasingly Terrence Malick-inspired cinematic tone poem: swells of music; people grazing their hands over things (in this case, CD racks instead of wheat thistles); Seimetz, Carruth, and others framed against magic hour light surrounded by pastoral, piggy beauty. If you’re waiting for some grand explanation, you won’t get it. Ditto a true resolution for Kris and Jeff. Carruth focuses instead on small, symbolic moments; fragments of imagery, sound, and gesture. There’s no denying that approach produces some beautiful individual flashes. But it also produces a movie that kind of misses the forest for the trees — or maybe the tree for the leaves (or maybe the leaf for the thousands of tiny green fibers).
Carruth is, on paper, exactly the kind of director I like: fervently independent, cinematically ambidextrous, far more concerned with personal expression than mass satisfaction. But on screen, Carruth remains a director I admire more than I enjoy, and far too cerebral for a scenario as emotional as “Upstream Color”‘s. This film should overwhelm us with sentiment, but everything feels so utterly cold, like a sentient computer trying to understand the concept of love after being fed the source code to a DCP of “The Tree of Life.”
True to the perspective of a man who writes, directs, produces, edits, composes, distributes and stars in his movies, “Upstream Color”‘s ultimate message is not really one about identity or love but about interconnectedness — how everything, good and bad, is linked (with or without mind-worms) in an enormous, unfathomable life cycle. When one part of that chain breaks down, the whole thing falls apart.