Sundance 2013: UPSTREAM COLOR Review

     January 22, 2013


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 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.

upstream-color-posterI 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.

Rating: C

Click here for all our Sundance 2013 coverage.  Click on the corresponding links for my previous reviews:

  • Rian Johnson

    Shane Carruth is one of the most original, exciting filmmakers alive today.
    I cannot believe you gave Upstream Color a “C”. Any film of his is an “A”!

    • Bigbirdvoyager9

      So many films get made a year. A C is better than any review lower. If you are the real Rian Johnson I’m a huge fan of Brick, The Brothers Bloom and your episode of Breaking Bad. Please work on an adaptation of AKIRA. And get the three directors of Cloud Atlas considered for SW E7.

    • A Person

      How much you liked Primer (Carruth’s only other film at this point) is completely irrelevant when reviewing Upstream Color. Who cares how “exciting’”Primer was? How can you even call Carruth “one of the most original, exciting filmmakers alive” when he’s only made one movie? Isn’t it possible that he’s a one-trick pony? If Upstream Color is a C movie, it’s a C movie, and cult obsession with Carruth should have nothing to do with it.

      • Brad

        Just because he has only made one film doesn’t categorize him as a one trick pony. However if this is in fact the case, it was a hell of a trick, one not many people could have accomplished.

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  • Tyler

    I dont think you guys know who youre talking to. Thats RIAN.

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  • jadedkate

    Finally an accurate, though much too kind, review of Upstream Color. It seems as if most reviewers and people leaving comments are pretending to “get” it. The movie was beyond artsy/edgy abstract into moronic artsy/edgy wannabe. Huge waste of my time.

  • jadedkate

    Finally an accurate, though much too kind, review of Upstream Color. It seems as if most reviewers and people leaving comments are pretending to “get” it. The movie was beyond artsy/edgy abstract into moronic artsy/edgy wannabe. Huge waste of my time.

  • Hilal Omar Al Jamal

    It’s a cerebral film that merits thoughtful viewing and contemplative reflection. I don’t feel that Primer comes close to achieving what Carruth achieves in Upstream Color. In my opinion, it’s a film about trauma and the reconstruction of the traumatic events that the protagonists suffer. The whole film is a kind of working through of events so psychologically traumatizing that the victims are left damaged and lacking, in the most severe sense of the word. Trauma, memory, and fragmentation go hand in hand. I think a well researched critical article that brings into play some trauma and memory theory would do this film a great service, explaining not only the function of the narrative fragmentation but also the protagonists’ seemingly erratic behavior, their acting out of traumatic events in an unconscious endeavor to work through them, overmaster them, and regain control of their lives and psyches. I feel that the connection between the sampler and the thief should have been clarified. There’s an interesting story looming in the relationship, or lack thereof, between those two key players. Whatever causes the decline of the chemical agent in the plants that the thief is cultivating is also unclear and inappropriately resolved. On second thought, there really was no reason to end the film in that way. I think it was a decision Carruth made in order to make us feel that justice had somehow been served or that the origin of the problem, the trauma, had been defused. Frankly, resolving the film in that way was a bad move. One of the thief’s apprentices could have, for unexplained reasons, killed the thief and destroyed the plants. What I’m saying is, there were other ways of resolving that problem. Aside from a shaky ending, this is overall a very strong film. The C rating is more telling of the critic’s limitations than of the film’s. Goldberg, with all due respect, all this nonsense about emotional connections if only we dig deep enough is a big step in the wrong direction. A-/B+ and a round of applause to Carruth.

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