You’re going to want to see it more than once: Upstream Color
Perhaps no movie you see this year will excite so much discussion.
Nine years ago, a obscenely talented, entirely self-taught filmmaker named Shane Carruth made a cautionary tale called Primer, about two engineers who accidentally build a time machine in their garage. It turned out to be more cautionary than he probably anticipated. Carruth practically shot the movie in his own garage, on a budget of roughly $7000; it won the grand prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, landed a distribution deal, was hailed as a masterpiece of lo-fi sci-fi. For all its self-evident brilliance, however, Primer is a tad impenetrable. Few saw it during its theatrical run, and those who did often went back multiple times—partly for the sheer pleasure of the experience, but also in an attempt to work out the precise mechanics of its recursive narrative. Carruth then spent years struggling in vain to secure financing for an even more ambitious follow-up. It’s not hard to imagine him identifying with the character he played in his first picture, running himself ragged trying to capitalize on his astonishing good fortune.
Upstream Color is Carruth’s second feature. Here at last. It’s not the insane project he spent the last decade pursuing, but you wouldn’t necessarily guess that from watching it. Perhaps no movie you see this year will excite so much discussion. And while it’s recognizably Carruth’s work—particularly in its unfashionable emphasis on montage, deriving meaning primarily from the way each brief, precise shot relates to those before and after -— it’s also a dramatic gear-shift from chilly and intellectual to intuitive and sensual. Indeed, while Upstream Color has a fair amount of (purely functional) dialogue, it’s essentially a silent film, obsessed not just with color but with texture and movement and rhythm. You’ll want to turn off the decoder ring, if you can manage it, and just allow yourself to luxuriate in its associative grandeur.
Still, let’s not pretend this is an easy film to grasp—though it’s knotty in a very different way from Primer. What happens isn’t in question this time; what to make of what happens is the tricky part. Here’s what’s certain: We meet a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who appears to be an upscale professional working with special effects in some capacity. She’s drugged, hypnotized, and robbed of everything she owns. Unable to recall or comprehend what’s happened to her, she falls into a codependent relationship with Jeff (Carruth), a man she meets on a train, who seems to have undergone the same traumatic experience. Both, meanwhile, have been “sampled” by a strange man (Andrew Sensenig) who has surgically transferred their essence—and while I’ve been working very hard to obscure the bizarre details up to this point, I can’t keep it up any longer—into some pigs. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden plays a key role in the story, as does a grub that inhabits the dirt underneath certain orchids. Also, pigs. Did I mention pigs?
Trying to make literal sense of this baldly metaphorical picture can be fun but isn’t strictly necessary—it’s meant to work on a more primal level, bypassing the logic circuits. Visual and aural rhymes are constant and richly suggestive. Judging from the two films he’s made so far, Carruth seems particularly interested in destructive feedback loops; one memorable interlude in Upstream Color (there are few conventional “scenes”) finds Kris and Jeff heatedly arguing about whether certain childhood memories are his or hers. The film is a study of damaged people in which both the damage and the method of recovery has been made productively strange, allowing Carruth to reclaim some potent ideas that have become clichés. It’s also a dazzling exercise in pure form, with a cinematic syntax that’s confident and exacting yet still feels wildly spontaneous—part Kubrick, part Malick. And it provides Seimetz (who’s a filmmaker herself) with a role that in many ways defies traditional acting, but which she nonetheless makes defiantly vivid.
The most exciting aspect of Carruth’s movies, though, in the end, may be the immense respect they afford the viewer. Not only does he refuse to spoon-feed, in the tiresome manner of most Hollywood fare (and even a sizable percentage of indie films), but he continually credits you with the intelligence to infer cause from effect, presenting you with B and trusting that you’ll work out A, which remains firmly offscreen, on your own. “You can step off the tile,” the Thief (Thiago Martins) tells a catatonic Kris at the outset of her ordeal, as her toes hover nervously in mid-air. “The rest of the floor will support your weight now.” Rather than show us Kris being hypnotized into immobility, as almost any other filmmaker would do for clarity’s sake, Carruth cuts directly to her release—which is every bit as clear and far more arresting. And this moment, too, feels vaguely autobiographical. That such a gifted artist has at long last sprung himself from the imaginary prison of development hell should make film buffs everywhere let out a mighty cheer.
Mike D’Angelo was among the first people to begin writing regular movie reviews on the Web, having created his stubbornly text-only site The Man Who Viewed Too Much in the summer of 1995. He has since been the chief film critic for Time Out New York and written a monthly film/TV column for Esquire, and has also contributed to the Village Voice, Nerve.com, and Variety, among other publications. Currently he writes regular film reviews for the Las Vegas Weekly and contributes a biweekly column on memorable movie scenes to the Onion’s A.V. Club.