Ten years can feel like a brief period of time in the movie industry. It’s been eleven since the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended (something easily forgotten when you’re still visiting Middle-Earth through the eyes of The Hobbit), and back in 2004 we were still one year away from the release of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. For Upstream Color’s director Shane Carruth, though, that ten years was a long stretch between his first feature film Primer and this, his second.
Considering this, it’s even more extraordinary that Upstream Color should come with the amount of hype that surrounded its release. Usually a first-time director who takes ten years to produce their second effort would do well not to be forgotten in that time. Conversely, Carruth’s reputation has soared to extra heights. Without doubt that has much to do with the cult status Primer has garnered since its release; this independent, low budget movie concerning the physics of time travel quickly gained a following that has only grown in time.
One cannot question Carruth’s work ethic. He is not only Upstream Color’s director, but he also wrote, produced, edited, acted in and composed the music for his new film. It displays a level of creative control that is rarely seen in mainstream cinema. His vibrant energy is clear from the beginning of what is admittedly quite a strange movie.
A character named Kris (played by the relatively unknown but very talented Amy Seimetz) is taken captive while visiting a nightclub. Her captor, known only as ‘the Thief’, forces her to ingest a parasitic larva that apparently places its host in a hypnotic state. For the next few days, this thief tests the potency of the drug, only allowing Kris to drink water in order to prolong its effects.
Eventually, Kris is coaxed into emptying her savings and freely hands them over to the thief, at which point he allows her to eat solid foods again and leaves, having got what he came for. The effects soon start to wear off. Kris, without any memory of what has just taken place, then begins a dream-like journey in which she meets a stranger named Jeff (Carruth, taking his role as the other of the film’s two main characters), who it seems she has a metaphysical connection with, and encounters a mysterious pig farmer who appears to know something about the situation.
In reality the film comes across as even more curious than it originally sounds on paper – no synopsis can really do this experience justice. Large sequences of the movie go by without having any apparent connection; sights, sounds and intriguing close-ups of hands and fingers serve to disorientate you, to the extent where you end up as confused as the characters themselves.
Yet you can’t help but keep watching and listening with rapt fascination. This is the case even when Carruth shows you the roundworms under Kris’ skin – one of a number of scenes which show clear signs of the psychological ‘body horror’ technique made famous by David Cronenberg. There’s rarely a moment when you don’t feel uncomfortable about the uneasy direction the film is taking, but you’ll want to go all the way with it nonetheless, if only to interpret some kind of meaning to proceedings.
By the end you may find yourself asking what exactly that meaning is and failing to come up with a firm answer. I’m not sure there is one. Upstream Color gives the impression of being an experimental yet beautiful film, by a director who is still looking to discover his masterpiece. Ultimately this film is perhaps a little too disjointed to be labelled as that, but is still an enjoyable vehicle for underrated talent.
Favourable comparisons have been made to David Lynch and James Cameron; in truth neither of these do the director real justice. Upstream Color is a unique, visionary showcase of mystified realism, the like of which we haven’t seen in Western cinema since the films of Stanley Kubrick. It is this link by which we should judge Shane Carruth and I trust, in time, others will feel the same.
9 / 10