[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Upstream Color opens today in limited release.]
With Primer and his latest film Upstream Color, writer-director Shane Carruth has clearly established a unique cinematic voice. With the exception of a few filmmakers, Carruth demands every ounce of his audience’s attention. It’s great to have a filmmaker like Carruth out there who has an unmistakable style and knows how to keep us captivated. But in his films, holding our attention is a trick to get us to invest in solving his characters and story. Carruth hopes that his abstract, dreamlike narrative can hold us in its sway, and that by struggling to follow the plot, we will somehow care about the characters’ problems. Upstream Color is masterful at keeping our attention through its complex storytelling, but it ironically makes its emotions as nebulous as its plotting and characters.
Carruth enjoys playing around with time and space, but the opening act of Upstream Color is fairly easy to follow. A special kind of maggot is grown from a plant, and if the maggot is implanted in a person, it can make the victim completely submissive to suggestion. A thief (Thiago Martins) uses this parasite to make Kris (Amy Seimetz) give him all of her money, and then she is led to a farm where the parasites are pulled from her body by receiving a blood transfusion from a pig (I said the plot was easy to follow, not that it wasn’t strange). From here, we see Kris try to maintain a grip on reality as she begins a romantic relationship with Jeff (Carruth). The film also circles back to the pig pen and the observations of a mysterious figure credited as “Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig).
The film is a masterwork in capturing the audience’s full concentration. Upstream Color clearly lays out its tone and feel, so the viewer knows from the start the kind of movie they’re in for. From there, Carruth wisely goes for long stretches with no dialogue, so the audience can place all of their focus into the editing, cinematography, and score. We become even more absorbed because all of these aspects are designed to keep us off-balance with their atonal sound and offbeat flow. When the characters do talk, their conversations are erratic and dissonant.
This approach makes Upstream Color understandable in its broad strokes, but infuriating in its individual scenes. Viewers should be able to walk out of the movie with the gist of the plot, but still scratching their heads about certain actions or the inclusion of certain moments. Carruth never makes any attempt to offer us the solutions to these scenes, nor should he. But there should at least be enough material for the viewer to at least make an argument for a solution. Instead, we get hung up on the individual puzzle pieces and stop looking at the big picture.
From there, we start wondering if it’s worth completing the puzzle in order to see the picture. Upstream Color is so fractured in its storytelling that while we may be absorbed in the plot, we may not be emotionally invested in what happens. The film isn’t plot driven, and the characters behave in such an abnormal fashion that we probably couldn’t relate to Kris if not for Seimetz’s stellar performance. Carruth wants to carry his movie on ideas and emotions, but there’s no reason to invest in either because the connection with the story and characters is too weak. It’s enticing to see what’s on the other side of the chasm, but for viewers like me, the leap doesn’t feel worth the effort.
I was almost wooed at points by Upstream Color. Carruth does a fantastic job of finding the essential moments in Jeff and Kris’ relationship, subverts expectations, and goes to great lengths to break through surface connections. But he goes far too deep down the rabbit hole, and the story reaches the point where Jeff could say to Kris, “It doesn’t have to be your schizophrenia. It could be our schizophrenia!” Upstream Color is so busy throwing us off balance that it never lets us get a grip on where we are in relation to the larger aspects of the storytelling and character development. We can draw the parallel between the pigs and the status of Jeff and Kris’ relationship, but to what end? Carruth’s film appears to make the promise of an emotional connection assuming you’re willing to dig beneath all of the tricks he used to make you pay attention in the first place.
Some viewers will happily grab a shovel. They won’t need special mind maggots to be enthralled with the film Carruth has created. Personally, I see the technical craft as a barrier rather than a lure. Carruth is clearly an intelligent person, and I’m sure Upstream Color has a point. Multiple viewings can probably explain why Kris makes paper chains when she’s under the parasite’s power, or why Jeff decides to get into a fistfight for apparently no reason. The film will probably spur its most ardent fans to pick up copies of Walden because it factors heavily into the plot, and Henry David Thoreau’s book could be some kind of decoder. But going to all of this trouble is a waste when Carruth can grab our attention but never elicit our concern.