Upstream Color (2013)
Not long after being captivated by Shane Carruth’s debut film, Primer, I looked up Carruth’s filmography and proceeded to watch Upstream Color. Released earlier this year, Upstream Color is Carruth’s second film, though it is separated from his first by almost ten years. As this film is a little more straightforward than Primer, I have enough confidence to say a few surface-level things about it after only two viewings.
This surreal piece of science fiction begins with an unnamed man extracting a drug from a mysterious blue plant and then using it to abduct and hypnotize a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz). After Kris generously gives the man all of her money and possessions while under the spell of hypnosis, she is freed but left with an extremely long and disturbing parasitic worm inside her body. Fortunately, a passive sound engineer (Andrew Sensenig) manages to reach out to Kris and surgically remove the parasite by displacing it into a small pig. The film continues by smoothly transitioning from character to character, while gravitating around Kris and Jeff (her boyfriend/husband), who work together to keep the plot moving forward. By the way, Jeff is played by Carruth, himself.
Normally watching a movie this complex can be a frustrating or laborious feat, but I actually found it very satisfying. There were so many opportunities for “Aha!” moments which can make viewers feel like they achieve something meaningful. To name a few: “Aha! More pigs means more people were abducted!”; “Aha! Jeff was one of them and the money he stole was therefore not for drugs!”; and “Aha! I knew that guy was going to die!”. While I love confusing movies, a surface plot that makes sense certainly goes a long way in motivating people to keep watching a film.
One thing that especially impressed me was the acting. Seimetz skillfully portrays contrasting personalities ranging from a disciplined professional to a hypnotized woman with childlike mannerisms to a person undergoing psychological recovery. Sensenig was excellent at playing a foley artist intrigued by various sounds and developments in the pigs’ counterparts. I didn’t overlook how the dialogue was often difficult to hear (the subtitles were very helpful in this film) but I felt that it supplemented the acting by providing a sense of distance between the characters and the viewers.
On the subject of Upstream Color’s genre – science fiction – there is certainly a lot to appreciate in this film. Many science fiction films with interesting concepts are belittled by their explanations, as in Inception and Looper. The phenomena in those films become routine and less impressive because the characters explaining them feel that way. By portraying the sci-fi portion of the film visually and dramatically, instead of vocally, Upstream Color is superior to other movies in its genre. The fundamental concepts of the film remain grand and somewhat ambiguous as characters and viewers together work to make sense of everything.
In case you couldn’t tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and I hope I’ve done it some justice by saying a few insightful things about it. Someday I would like to return to Upstream Color to get a firmer grasp on some of the deeper themes. In the meantime, I sincerely recommend this film.