July 18, 2013

Upstream Color (2013)

Directed by Shane Carruth. Starring Amy Seimetz ("Kris"), Shane Carruth ("Jeff"), Andrew Sensenig ("Sampler"), and Thiago Martins ("Thief"). Not Rated.

Source: Region 1 DVD (ERBP/New Video)
Running time: 01:35:57
Country: USA

Yeah, so I'm gonna be honest right away and say that I have no fucking idea what this movie is about, but I do know that it left a pretty big impression on me. If director/writer/actor/producer/composer, etc. Shane Carruth's complex time-travel film from a few years ago PRIMER wasn't enough of a mind-fuck, along comes UPSTREAM COLOR.

Truth be told, I didn't seek out UPSTREAM COLOR because of Shane Carruth. In fact, I didn't even know it was a Shane Carruth movie until it was over, despite the fact that he stars in it and I was watching him for most of the film's running time. But hey, it's been a while since I saw PRIMER and I don't really follow the guy on social networking sites, so pardon my oversight. I sought this movie out simply because it sounded interesting and because it stars Amy Seimetz, who I'm a fan of and is sort of an indie darling it seems.

Since I can't tell you what UPSTREAM COLOR is about, the best I can do is describe some events and themes within. The film opens with some sort of experiment involving mealworms and a lot of focus on plants. There are also teenagers with psychic powers who can mimic each other's movements without seeing one another. From there we're introduced to Seimetz's character, Kris, who apparently either works on commercials or movies (one of the few self-referential elements of UPSTREAM COLOR). I'm not sure if she's an editor or if she works on continuity, but it's something along those lines. Sooner than later, she's abducted and forced to consume one of the aforementioned mealworms against her will. The mealworm and whatever chemicals it carries causes Kris to be vulnerable to hypnosis, and so her abductor takes advantage of this and basically ruins her life.

Once the abductor is out of the picture, Kris is left to deal with some disturbing Body Horror issues and get her life back together. During this bizarre time in her life, she meets a mysterious guy named Jeff (played by director/everything Carruth) and the two eventually become romantically involved. There's a third character who weaves in and out of what little narrative there is and oversees a bunch of pigs on a farm. He also conducts experiments with sound. And that's really all I can say about the plot. UPSTREAM COLOR had the potential to be incredibly pretentious, and there are a few things here and there that caused me roll my eyes at how inaccessible the film had a tendency to be, but for the most part I believe this to be a very successful experiment in storytelling, visuals, and sound.

Visually and thematically, UPSTREAM COLOR reminded me a lot of ANOTHER EARTH, in that it's very ambiguous in its presentation and how it tackles complex Sci-Fi ideas. Both films could be set in the past, present, or future, but they leave a lot to your imagination and don't spell everything out for you. The characters, visuals, and atmosphere take precedence over everything else, and it's to the point where the dates and locations are irrelevant. It's smart, resourceful filmmaking that eliminates anything that could distract you from what really matters the most: the substance, the images, and the people. In terms of style and mood, UPSTREAM COLOR could also be compared to ANOTHER EARTH and other indie films of its ilk, but of course Carruth's PRIMER bore a similar (albeit rougher) tone and visual style years ago. You could even compare UPSTREAM COLOR to some of the more independent works of Steven Soderbergh, like BUBBLE and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. UPSTREAM COLOR, visually, consists of an almost surveillance-style of timed, rotating shots that last for a few seconds as opposed to long takes or flamboyant camera movements. A musical score consisting of low-key, borderline Ambient music sweeps in and out of the film at opportune times and strangely compliments the gorgeous but restless visuals.

Again, I have no idea what this movie is about, but there are enough symbols and visual clues for me to at least use my imagination and come up with something that I think sounds cool. What I can say is that there are undeniable themes of infection, life, and death in UPSTREAM COLOR. The film starts with nature and ends with nature, and plants play a big part in the film's symbolism. Pigs also play a prominent role in the film, but I'm not sure what that's all about other than some visual parallels at times between the pigs and humans. The third character I mentioned earlier (who's listed in the credits as "The Sampler") is basically portrayed as a ghost - a mysterious figure who's practically invisible and weaves in and out of the story as those around him (for the most part) are completely oblivious to his presence. To me, the Sampler was the most "meta" thing about the film but in ways that are extremely difficult for me to describe. Confused yet? Yeah, so am I. UPSTREAM COLOR is frustratingly vague and "artsy" on occasion, and there were times where I felt like it was overstaying its welcome, but the marriage of sound, visuals, and ideas are too interesting to ignore. In this case, the great thing about not knowing what's going on is being utterly interested in where it's going.

Score: 7


  1. Glad you watched this one and, to some extent, enjoyed it. I had a similar experience: I had only a rough idea of what I saw and had to do a lot of mental unpacking to make out the different causalities and relationships between characters and elements. I think I arrived at a vague, fairly raw understanding, but I did know that I liked what I saw. Carruth is really pushing the narrative aspects of the medium in ways that few directors are. He has grand, weird ideas and I'm glad he chose film to express them. Soderbergh is a good comparison for him, with David Lynch and mad scientist tendencies thrown into the mix as well. Wouldn't be surprised at all to see this one creep up to my top films of the year on a rewatch. Highly original stuff.

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment, KB! I think I liked it more than my review and score would suggest. I felt a 7/10 was fair, but it's not to say that it didn't leave a bigger impression on me than most films I've seen this year and have rated higher. And yeah, I respect Carruth for the reasons you mentioned. Not sure if it will be on my Best of 2013 list when it's all said and done, but it'll definitely be in consideration for whatever that's worth. Thanks again!