Upstream Color is a great movie. Every single frame of the film hooked me. The entire construction is a marvel of ideas and ingenuity. Shane Carruth’s previous picture was the similarly complex Primer. That film was often accused of being cold and off-putting, which I don’t agree with. Besides, such complaints miss the point of the endeavor altogether. Either way, the talented filmmaker’s latest maintains his mathematical precision but pairs it with genuine feeling. The film might be a challenging mix of science fiction and body horror, but there’s a romantic spine cutting through it. It’s so much more than that though.
Beyond the coupling, the film’s style lends it its power. It’s a tactile experience. There are lots of shallow close-ups and moments dependent on touch. The tactile becomes visceral, with a huge assist from the encompassing sound design, and the visceral in turn becomes emotional. It’s a cycle both controlled and unrestrained with parallels to the narrative. It’s a high concept executed in exacting and exciting ways. Utilizing nematodes, a mysterious man takes advantage of Kris (Amy Seimetz). She is left broke, confused, and violated. A second strange man appears to end her nightmare with the curious use of livestock, pigs to be exact. This opening sequence contains some Cronenberg-level horror that truly gets under your skin. Later, Kris finally has her life back on some semblance of a track when she catches the eye of Jeff.
It seems Jeff has also been a victim of the strangers. Kris and Jeff fall for each other, but they’re lives remain unsettled. Together they piece together their fragmented pasts and figure out the connections between them. This involves Walden, a pig farm, botany, sound effects recordings, and scar tissue. It’s weird, really weird. But it’s not untenable. You might not understand exactly why or how things go from A to B, but there’s an image logic that carries you from A to B anyways. Which is fascinating. The imagery comes first and that’s okay because it’s satisfying. The rest works because the editing holds tight and keeps a strict pace. It’s cut like a more concentrated Nicolas Roeg picture and the effort bolsters everything.
The film is an artistic achievement. It’s remarkable, and it’s even crazier when you see the credits and realize what a control freak Shane Carruth is. He worked as the film’s producer/writer/director/actor/co-editor/cinematographer/camera operator/co-sound designer/composer and if that wasn’t enough he’s distributing the picture himself. It’s rare for someone to handle all these duties, but it’s rarer still for someone to do all of them so well. If you were to pick a weak point it is perhaps his acting, but even then he doesn’t give himself more than he can handle. He has a favorable screen presence and a likable charm. At any rate, Seimetz is the center and she is attuned to Carruth’s universe. The two have a unique chemistry as well.
Everyone is going to have a different understanding of the film and I look forward to obsessive fans deconstructing the crap out of the movie. I walked away feeling like it represents past trauma in our lives. Is it PTSD? Rape? Some vice? It doesn’t really matter. It can haunt and dictate our future as much as we allow it. Our ability to connect can be a savior. Also, pig souls (I told you it’s weird). It’s a small film but it exceeds any and all limitations with big ideas that engage and stimulate. It gave me something I’d never seen before and it did it in stunning fashion.