4.5 / 5 stars
It’s tough to describe Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and nearly impossible to categorize it. But that’s exactly what you’d expect—and want, frankly—from the guy who gave us the remarkably tantalizing time travel indie, Primer, a first feature Carruth made with just a handful of cash and a brain full of head games. It seems that Primer was aptly titled, too, as it feels like a movie-making instruction booklet of sorts for Carruth’s follow-up, an addictively entertaining mind-melter that’s high on artistry and ambitious as hell. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
With Upstream Color, writer-director-actor (and composer) Carruth embraces the geeky intelligence of his first film and combines it with the crystalline close-ups of Terrence Malick to deliver a moody, sometimes fantastically vague, dreamy nightmare. From the fascinating photography to the startlingly original storyline, Upstream Color is a cool, rewarding experience.
Here’s my shot at the plot, worthy of your suspension of disbelief: A young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is briefly abducted, held in her own home by a guy who’s placed her in a completely subservient, mesmerized state, thanks to a natural, potent chemical that’s been introduced to her body (via some sort of worm that carries it. Hang on.)
Once Kris begins returning to normal consciousness—and I’m leaving out an enormous amount of story detail here—something’s off. She’s lost, just not right. At the same time, she meets Jeff (Carruth), a guy who’s also bizarrely off-balance and desperate to connect with Kris. We quickly understand their tenuous, indefinable simpatico when Jeff robotically makes the same paper craftwork Kris had been creating when caught in her dangerous trance.
This plays out like the greatest X-Files episode never made. Carruth takes his two-character narrative as far as possible, using the strange psychic symmetry between Kris and Jeff to comment on the very initiation of a relationship—the awkward introductions, tentative steps forward, near-desperate desire to know someone better. Here, the couple’s shared experience instantly draws them together while driving them individually mad, and potentially further apart. The psychic dynamic is awfully reminiscent of Spielberg’s Close Encounters, and sometimes just as exciting.
But Carruth imagines inexplicable synaptic ties existing beyond just humans. As victims of this organic experiment, Kris and Jeff are part of a wildly complex biological cycle that includes, plants, water and a pen of pigs that plays a vital part in the process. They feel it in their brains and they hear it in the world around them, literally, a plot development that allows the aurally astute Carruth to create a superb sound design full of both mystery and meaning.
By the final act, we’re simply entranced. As the mystery becomes clearer, and the film is at its most commercially accessible, Upstream Color takes on a surprising, satisfying melancholy. With a tight economy of dialogue and wordless final scenes (a guy named Shyamalan once had the potential to be this good without words), Carruth surfaces a resolution that possesses a tinge of sadness that’s difficult to define. Then again, like I said, Upstream Color isn’t that easy to describe. And that’s exactly the way it should be.