A film review by Craig J. Koban May 22, 2013

RANK:  #7


2013, no MPAA rating, 96 mins.


Amy Seimeitz as Kris  /  Shane Carruth as Jeff  /  Andrew Sensenig as Sampler  /  Mollie Milligan as Maggie  /  Thiago Martins as Thief  /  Andreon Watson as Peter  /  Myle McGee as Monty

Written and directed by Shane Carruth

To write a review simply describing what occurs during the course of Shane Carruth’s UPSTREAM COLOR – his long awaited follow-up to his 2004 indie time travel film, PRIMER – is perhaps a supreme exercise in utter futility.  Maybe because, quite frankly, I did not quite fully understand what indeed was happening throughout it.  Carruth’s sophomore directorial effort is not a film that mechanically traverses from narrative point a to b and then to c, nor does it dutifully answer all of our nagging queries about its labyrinthine nature.  The real power of the film - which is the power of the movies, I guess – is in taking audiences to an ethereal place of mood, textures, sights and sounds.  Yes, UPSTREAM COLOR is positively head scratching at times, but there’s no denying its hallucinogenic allure and power.  It’s a work to actively experience more than just passively watch.   

Indecipherability is Carruth’s calling card.  I’ve seen his PRIMER half a dozen times and I still can make heads or tails about its intricately layered temporal shifting plot.  Yet, there’s something acutely memorizing and seductive to discover and appreciate a film whose very greatness lies in not being able to decode all of its secrets.  It’s very hard to label UPSTREAM COLOR as any one type of genre effort: it’s part romance, part science fiction drama, part INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS-esque infection thriller…I could on.  The Sundance Film Festival description of its premise barely cracks its multi-layered surface: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.  Identity becomes illusion as they struggle to assemble loose fragments of their wrecked lives.”  I might add, among other things, that it’s also about shared doom and the uncertainty of everything around you.   

Oh, and pigs are involved. 

The film’s ambitious, dreamlike, and open-ended plotting involves a woman named Kris (Amy Seimeitz, an inordinately promising and talented newcomer), who is very quickly abducted in the opening sections of the film.  She is then implanted by her mysterious captor with a parasite – alien or earthbound, we are not sure – that immediately places her in a constant state of subjugation and obedience.  These mind-altering maggots change her life: she is, while under their spell, completely compliant to her captor’s suggestions.  When she awakens from their mental snare she is a hopelessly confused wreck.  She loses her job, not to mention all of her money (without any memory as to how), and finds herself pathetically picking up the pieces of her distraught life.  Concurrent to this is an enigmatic person, Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a figure that helps the growth of the strangely powerful maggots by using ambient noises via distorting naturally compiled sounds on his synthesizer.  



He also runs a pig farm. 

Once Kris has more or less fully recovered she finds herself oddly drawn towards another man, Jeff (Carruth), whom is drawn to her as well.  Neither of them can verbalize nor even contemplate why they seem destined to be together; all they understand is that they are.  No matter where they travel in the city, Jeff and Kris have a manner of bumping into each other, despite the fact that they appear to have no tangible connection or past history.  Throughout the middle sections of the film the pair engage in a highly peculiar courtship, if you can even call it that.  There are hints – without direct reveals – that Jeff may have been a victim to the very same hellish ordeal that befell Kris.  As they get closer they also seem, ironically enough, to pull themselves apart from each other as they desperately try to rationalize not only coming together, but also the terrifying vagueness of what in the hell happened to them both.  

There is positively nothing traditional about how this film is scripted.  It’s sort of beguiling in its abstractness, almost in a manner that Terrence Malick infuses in his own pictures.  UPSTREAM COLOR is like a grand puzzle of the surreal and, yes, befuddling, where just when you think you have all of its pieces placed together to create a whole, you have to start all over again.  The free-associative nature of the editing of scenes only emphasizes the film’s hypnotic opacity.  Some moments build and flow into others, whereas some seem to have no direct correlation to what occurred before.  Some will, no doubt, find Carruth’s stylistic manner here cold and distancing, but on the contrary his Kubrickian flourishes here innately draws you into the story, making you yearn to make sense of it all...even when you can’t. 

I couldn’t tell you in the slightest what I think really happens to the couple in UPSTREAM COLOR.  What I can tell you is what I felt the film was trying to suggest about their relationship.  Despite the inherent mysteries of the organisms that are inexplicably linked to the by-product of plants and pigs and their evolutionary bond to humans (at least I think), it appears that the bond between Kris and Jeff is all about two lost souls coming together and becoming inalterably co-dependent on the other when everyone else in the world casts them out.  There are times when both Kris and Jeff’s respective memories of what has occurred in the past to each other are so fractured and murky that they can’t even tell the real from the imagined.  Yet, they have a connection that can’t be qualified.  If anything is clear in the film it’s that they become lovers and form a bond not out of instant mutual attraction, but rather because other unfathomable forces are compelling them to do so.  

I can see how lay filmgoers could grow easily agitated by what UPSTREAM COLOR doesn’t explain.  Are the genetically modified maggots a scientific concoction or extraterrestrial in origin (Carruth splinters in transfixing and beautiful shots of microscopic imagery of…well…something going on in nature and these animals that would hint at an otherworldly inception)?  How does this mind-bending entity change the ecosystem and the color and nature of plant life?  How are pigs involved in all of this and, for that matter, what is Sampler’s end-game in all of this?  At times, he appears and disappears at will and seems to be invisible to other characters in the film.  He also has an emotionlessly clinical fascination with collecting sounds for the maggot harvesting and a burning desire to nourish off of collective human misery.  Is he an alien?  Are his modified maggots a controlled catalyst that are used on humans as some sort of observational experiment? 

Maybe the greatness of UPSTREAM COLOR is that it simply teases us with questions that are indefinitely unanswerable.  The only thing palpable here is Kris and Jeff’s relationship and their link to a parasite’s life cycle that, against their will, changes who they are and how they relate to others.  Those looking for explanations will, by the film’s end, begin pulling their hair out of their heads out of tired frustration.  Yet, UPSTREAM COLOR is not a film about providing neat and tidy closure, nor is it about casually explaining all of its tantalizing mysteries.  Carruth’s genius here is in how he meticulously and rhythmically engages viewers on a primal emotional level with the material without really edifying us of what’s really occurring.  It’s about creating a sensation within us as as its enthralling imagery caresses over us.  I saw UPSTREAM COLOR days ago, and will truly need even more days to process it after this review, but there’s no doubt that it’s equal parts confounding, maddening, beguiling, haunting, and beautiful rendered.  

It just might be great…even masterful…that much is certain after watching it.

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