It’s hard for me to recommend Upstream Color, though it’s a compelling film to watch — I stayed with it, letting myself follow wherever director/writer/star/composer/editor Shane Carruth was leading, because I needed to know what happened. I can’t say I was on any sort of quest for understanding, however, because it was painfully obvious that clarity was going to remain elusive. It’s a movie that will elicit as many “what-the-hells” from audiences as it will “bravos,” and probably more.
- Directed by Shane Carruth
- Written by Shane Carruth
- Starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth
Upstream Color is the second feature from indie auteur Carruth whose first film, Primer was a fascinating but migraine-inducing time travel story that was essentially incomprehensible without a massive flowchart — and remains brain-bending even with that cheat sheet . Carruth was a software engineer before branching out into filmmaking, so I believe the term “overengineered” would apply aptly to the plot of Primer.
Compared to Primer, though, Upstream Color proceeds as straightforward as a children’s book. But if the storytelling was simplified by virtue of being more linear, the actual story itself was just as opaque. Carruth likes to throw out seemingly random, unrelated visual motifs and details that don’t begin to gain any sense of context until much later in the movie, and even then he’s not interested in explanations as much as he is impressions. In most movies, one would expect all of these individual abstract pieces to accrete to the point where they painted a relatively complete picture; in Upstream Color, they only aggregate into the outside border of a particularly difficult jigsaw puzzle. The pieces themselves stand out as more important than the unseen whole.
Carruth certainly has a wonderful eye for imagery, crafting compelling and evocative shots that suggest the emotional states of his characters even if they don’t much illuminate their situations. Ultimately I think that’s his goal; the what and the why of his story is certainly important, and it’s clear he’s put a mammoth amount of thought and consideration into the details of his plot. But it’s how the events impact his characters that really matters. He wants us to understand how these people feel even if we have only a vague understanding of why they feel the way they do.
I could relate some of the plot elements of Upstream Color to you — there’s at least one kidnapping, a pig farm, synchronized dance, the melding of memories, bizarre surgery, the collection of sounds — but doing so would be like trying to describe the Eiffel Tower by saying “it’s made of metal and it’s really tall.” Technically true, and yet doesn’t provide you any real sense whatsoever of the thing.