It’s been a long eight year’s since the superb time traveling Pandora’s box that was Primer took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance back in 2004, but writer/director/actor/cinematographer/composer Shane Carruth has not hung up his filmmaker hat just yet. His sophomore feature, Upstream Color, is an enigmatic love story that rests on the ledge of science fiction and bathes in the memories of cellular connection. Now, like the film, this description is heady, but fairly accurate. Carruth wants to explore the nature of our perceived world through the eyes of people who have lost theirs, forced to start anew, and he does this with wicked intelligence and fearless conviction. It’s a gorgeous, vivid journey that begs for repeat viewings, yet it’s emotionally aloof and structurally unconventional, a work destined to be heralded by art houses .
This is the type of film where you are best going in blind. We are first introduced to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a successful young film professional who’s is quickly drugged by a thief (Thiago Martins) who’s home brewed worm potions have a long term brainwashing effect. Under his direction and the hand of a surgically inclinded pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig), Kris hands over her monetary worth, loses her job, and awakens unable to remember the past few days, giving her the notion that she might be mentally ill. Later, medicated and withdrawn, she meets Jeff (Carruth), a man who suffers from a similarly tragic life event, and slowly their spacey bond evolves into blooming, yet unknowable emotion. Their memories and those of others start to meld into one as our humanly connection begins to show its ties to other organisms, physically and spiritually.
Don’t be fooled, the cryptic title is quite literal. Color plays an integral part in the symbology of the narrative. Blues and yellows particularly invoke certain emotional and memorial junctures. There is also a continuous connection to pigs, a sentient being long linked with human history and an organism we share many genetic comparisons with. Close-ups on hands and feet receive some of the longest shots in the film and an extended sequence highlights audio experimentalism with recorded natural sounds. These along with many other pinpoints suggest our direct connection to this world, through touch and sound. The film takes this theme and runs wild with. And then there is ‘Walden’, Henry David Thoreau’s seminal work of finding life among nature – used here as a brainwashing textbook. Within the thematic weavery there are many trapdoors, but these are the keys.
Carruth’s hands all over the project, even his own company is distributing, which means that he had to answer to almost no one in regards to the creative process, and it shows. Brazenly unconfined by traditional convocations, the narrative is minimally construed. Big, brainy ideas about human experience, zoetic reciprocity, and an abdication to the unknown are subtly tucked in between the lines of Kris and Jeff and their unknowing relationship with the mysterious pig farmer. Major plot points are not explicitly explained, but rather visually inferred through meticulously planned, masterfully lensed cinematography and practical effects. Like Primer, it takes a while for things to click into place and even longer to process the scale of Carruth’s undertaking. Though some of these points inevitably detract from accessibility, they are precisely what make Upstream Color such a unique, mind-bending achievement.
Reviewed on January 23rd at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – US DRAMATIC COMPETITION Programme. 96 Min