Nine years ago, autodidact filmmaker Shane Carruth burst onto the indie scene with the abstruse and complex sci-fi thriller “Primer,” which made him a Sundance darling in 2004 when it won the Grand Jury Prize and went on to become a cult hit. The polymath writer, director, actor, musician, editor, producer, et al. stayed mostly quiet during this time, working fruitlessly on a still-unproduced film called “A Topiary” and helping out Rian Johnson with the time-travel sequences in “Looper.”
After dwelling in an amorphous gestating status over the last several years, Carruth’s latest bewitching curio, “Upstream Color,” is a film so bewilderingly mysterious (“Primer” is more conventional in comparison) that you will awaken 95 minutes later feeling like you’ve been incepted. And some might dislike the feeling of not being quite able to process or find the narrative floor beneath the elusive experience. Disorienting side effects may occur. Results may vary. Some will feel like they’ve been ethered in the dentist’s chair and woken up with no one in the room and their pants around their ankles. “Upstream Color” is almost like a sci-fi thriller without possessing either genre trait. In truth it’s more of an opaque identity and relationship story that takes its time to unfurl without feeling the need to connect its cellular tissues. “Upstream Color” is an exploration of themes and abstractions rather than a concrete narrative, but it’s also like a puzzle box with all the pieces laying at your feet. You may not be able to figure it out, but that’s part of the point of this sensually-directed, sensory-laden experiential (and experimental) piece of art that washes over you like a sonorous bath of beguiling visuals, ambient sounds and corporeal textures (Douglas Trumbull‘s visual effects within the body are stunning).
Fragmented and evanescent, while the film has clues laid out (the picture demands your full, careful attention), its architecture is such that it’s not meant to be defined and crystallized in the manner in which your conventional narrative is absorbed. The keys are there for you to discover what you will, and no easy answers are ever provided—Christopher Nolan‘s narratives seem pedestrian and spelled-out in contrast. “Upstream Color” stars writer/director/actress Amy Seimetz (2012’s “Sun Don’t Shine“) as Kris, a type of art dealer who, for reasons unknown, becomes a target. Hipster botanists toy with plants, find maggots and distill into them their essence, which we assume is a mind-bending elixir. But these amateur scientists are actually thieves, and Kris is mysteriously drugged and essentially brainwashed. Under their control in a hypno-psychosis state, Kris is asked to explain what she is worth and then hand over the equity. She signs checks, writes documents and goes to the bank in this manipulated narcoleptic state. She wakes up days later, the drugs wearing off, disoriented and unsure of what’s happened. The maggot inside her has grown into a worm-like entity horrifically coursing through her body. She attempts to cut it out with gruesome results.
Following sounds and intuition she is led to The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a sound-designer and pig farmer who makes ambient, atonal music that’s somehow connected to the unpleasant narcotic violation she’s experienced and the microcellular ailments flourishing within her. She comes to him and passes out. He preps a surgery, bringing one of his pigs into the medical procedure, and some kind of transference takes place. The microbacterial organism is now living inside the pig and Kris and the animal are now inexorably linked in some unexplainable symbiotic relationship (that extends to nature, the plants and beyond). She wakes up a day later in her car even more discombobulated. Completely unaware of what’s transpired, she returns home to a scene of blood and food sprawled everywhere, along with vague evidence of her abduction. She soon clues into the fact that she’s been robbed and also learns she’s been fired for being AWOL on an important project for more than 48 hours.
Time passes and Kris is trying to pick up the fragments of her life. She meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) and a tentative, ambiguous romance eventually blossoms, complete with a meetcute scene. Love is complicated. Both gun-shy parties try to talk the other out of continuing before they’ve truly begun by revealing ugly truths. As the duo bonds, Kris discovers identical physical evidence on Jeff that suggests he’s been slipped the same kind of somnolent mickey that she has and has encountered the same eerie effects. As they discover clues that begin to enlighten them to their abduction, the couple struggles. Phantom memories blur, identities become ravaged and confused, their experiences become shared like a madness that decays the mind. Investigating, exploring, and perhaps passing through realms, they are brought closer and closer to The Sampler and the meaning of this illusory nightmare. Impressionistically edited by David Lowery, director of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” the last third of the film is wordless — all haunting images and droning heavenly music, guiding the story to its deeply enigmatic conclusion.
Henry David Thoreau‘s transcendentalist work “Walden” is not only a major influence, but a text that’s read from in the film. The picture, like the novel, is a social and cinematic experiment with a voyage of spiritual discovery, a surreal meditation on self. “Upstream Color” could be an exhaled, ephemeral dream where time, space and madness intermingle, and sometimes the story feels and sounds like it’s depicted from the inside of the womb, the experience of an embryo looking and listening to the muted and textured sounds of a world that’s still not fully realized and still a fleeting notion. It’s a picture that’s not easy to process, and that’s part of what makes it so breathtaking and brilliant. You’re baffled by what you’ve seen and in awe of how it’s illuminated your mind. Thematically rich, layered and hypnotic, “Upstream Color” is a maddeningly abstract and romantic examination of love, who we are as lovers, what our love does to one another, and how that’s connected to the nature of all things. It’s fleeting, transcendental. Don’t ask me what it all means. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the Sundance Film Festival.