Film Reviews

Upstream Color Shane Carruth

Rating - 9/10

Writers attempting to expose Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, the long-awaited follow-up to the sci-fi mind-bender Primer (2004), may be convinced of its defiance of objective classification and relish its purely subjective summarization.  There is an abstract narrative, but it is pulled by personal interpretation and connected through series of radiant, morphing digital photography rather than conventional cinematic communication.  It is a sort of epic, romantic, poetic nightmare that traces a cycle of human abuse, disconnect, and redemption to nature, while also proposing to be a psychotherapeutic method in itself.  The film functions as a confrontation of emotions that recalls Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) with equal ambition but in compressed time.  In categorizing the film through psychology, the film's logo, an entanglement of the letters "U" and "C" is not only a perfect manner in which to express the mystical, destined involvement of the two victims in the film, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth), but also seems to be an altered Greek 'psi' (Ψ) of clinical psychology.  Upstream Color transcends the clinical in every way, as a cyclical intuitive journey.

The introductory scenes pass with dream logic and few words, dealing with the topics of drug abuse and reconditioning.  Henry David Thoreau's transcendental Walden is at the heart of the few recitations, drawing the film inevitably closer to nature and mimicking Thoreau's associations.  Kris finds herself at the mercy of an unnamed "Thief" (Thiago Martins) who drugs her with narcosynthetic maggots disguised in pill capsules that allows him to manipulate her movements and thoughts.  The film's shimmering but somber ambient score (also composed by Carruth) and visuals duplicate Kris' hypnotic state through her strange routine of pouring measured bits of water, writing, gluing paper links together, and obeying the Thief's machinations; there's nothing inherently sensual about any of these acts, but the way in which Carruth shoots the film with quick cuts of the human face and anatomy is beautifully melancholic.  In fact, Upstream Color in its entirety achieves a unique sensibility with its brilliantly surreal editing that achieves a bleeding effect, as if it's melding all manner of place and time into a single one.  To reinforce the thematic cycle, Carruth links seemingly unrelated milieu through environmental objects and sounds.  Constrictive subway doors become the boundaries of a steel pig pen, and the crinkling of paper straw wrappers become the rustling leaves in the breeze.

After recognizing the infestation in her body, Kris desperately makes incisions in her skin to remove the maggots but fails; she is led by inexplicable forces to a strange man with recording equipment and subwoofers pulsating against the ground, who is known only as "The Sampler" (Andrew Sensenig).  Through mere visual cues, he recognizes her dilemma and then transfers the maggots from her body into a pig.  For the remainder of the film, it seems Kris and the pig share an uncommon bond, as the film's perspectives often shift between her own and the swine who accepted the maggot larvae.  Additionally, to further complicate Kris' disorienting relationship with the world, she encounters a vulnerable man named Jeff (Shane Carruth) on the subway and becomes intimately involved in a turbulent relationship that lacks lucid communication.  At one point during the film, it's explicit how Jeff and Kris have undergone the same horrifying maggot-reconditioning and recovery processes, and they begin to confuse their identities and history with one another.  Their memories and pasts become fused, splitting the film open where cycles of life and conditioning recur, naturalistic milieu invades (water, orchids, tree roots), and ideas of transmigration and evolution also come flooding in.

In interviews, Carruth has noted the film's destruction and rebuilding of personal narrative, which suggests the film is a kind of therapy.  Stripping away all the stylizations, Upstream Color may be perceived as a tapestry about unknown afflictions and how they extraordinarily draw humanity together but may just as easily destroy those very bonds and prevent any further opportunities from ever materializing.  An enigmatic promo for the film reads "You can force your story's shape, but the color will always bloom upstream," which relates Carruth's own artistic process to the abstract journey of the characters to the prevailing sense of nature through the notion of influence outside conscious awareness (or something "upstream" in life).  Whether it's literally evoked or found in subtext, Walden meanders through Upstream Color, intertwining the relationship of all animals, conveying a sense of continuation and rebirth.  At one of the coherent plot points, Kris is told she is unable to carry a child due to stage-three endometrial cancer.  Her loss is metaphorically magnified by camera's attention to piglets and her mood swings in one of the film's climaxes.  Calum Marsh of Slant Magazine writes, "(It's) astonishing how lucidly it articulates a very real pain through metaphor, capturing the devastation and loss and the protectiveness of parenthood better than a more straightforward expression could have."  The entire film is overflowing with feeling; whether tangible or impalpable, it's always penetrating.