Synopsis: A young woman is abducted and seemingly brainwashed via an organic material harvested from a specific orchid. She later meets a man and after the two fall for each other, they come to realize he may also have been subjected to the same process. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other and struggle to assemble the fragments of their wrecked lives as they are unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again.
Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to an abundance of hype. Carruth’s follow-up to his fantastic 2004 time travel film, Primer, Upstream Color screened as part of SXSW‘s opening night festivities at The Stateside Theatre and ran the gauntlet of audience reaction. As moviegoers left the screening I heard “brilliant,” “profound,” “confusing,” and “fucking atrocious” within seconds of each other – a divisive, peculiar film that feels equal parts Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Mike Cahill (Another Earth), and Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko).
Unfortunately, Carruth’s flight was delayed and he was unable to attend the Q&A session after the screening, so little light was shed on what the filmmaker’s intentions were in making this mind-bending, beautiful film. I will say right off the bat that I didn’t enjoy Upstream Color as much as Primer – but it is a solid follow-up that further showcases Carruth’s skill as a filmmaker and actor.
Upstream Color feels less like a narrative feature and more like a series of experimental short films, complemented with gorgeous cinematography, impressive sound design, and a fantastic score that – if nothing else – will compel you to keep watching and figure out the abstract puzzle Carruth has strewn about the screen.
Carruth is joined by Amy Seimetz (Tiny Furniture) who gives a riveting performance as Kris, a woman abducted and experimented on, with no recollection of the unfortunate events that befell her. She meets Carruth’s Eric (who was also given abducted) and the two become… entangled. To say they fall for each other would simplify their relationship too much – it’s much more complicated. Thanks to a strange organic material, they occupy the same brain space – sharing one consciousness – and their pasts begin to merge into one. His childhood stories become hers – her insecurities and fears become his.
There are even some elements of Cronenberg body horror as we are subjected to gorgeous, Malick-esque shots of the human body’s insides – nematodes that have absorbed this mind-altering organic material perform an elegant dance through the Eric and Kris’ pulpy insides. There are some bizarre surgery scenes where a mysterious entity known only as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) removes these nematodes from Kris’ body and implanting them into a pig. It only gets more bewildering and confusing from there – to speculate on what it all means would be giving too much away probably.
Maybe it doesn’t mean anything – maybe it’s just a pretentious, artsy, and ambiguous for the sake of being artsy and ambiguous kind of movie – maybe it’s too incoherent to make sense of – but there are some intriguing moments peppered throughout Carruth’s sophomore effort. If you watch movies to actively participate in solving puzzles, you’ll enjoy pondering the details of Upstream Color, a hypnotic, cinematic brain-teaser that will no doubt alienate as many moviegoers as it entrances.
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