REVIEW: 'Upstream Color' Is Thoreau-ly Avant Garde − And Hypnotic

Upstream Color Review

As mystifying as his 2004 sci-fier, Primer, albeit for entirely different reasons, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a stimulating and hypnotic piece of experimental filmmaking. It’s also a poem about pigs, a meditation on orchids, a cerebral-spiritual love story, an intensely elliptical sight-and-sound collage, and perhaps a free-form re-interpretation of Thoreau’s Walden. Surely the most challenging dramatic entry at Sundance this year, this unapologetically avant-garde work regards conventional narrative as if it were a not-especially-interesting alien species; the mainstream will take no notice, but adventurous auds are in for a strange and imaginative trip.

Primer fans and hardcore art-film devotees will likely be the sole takers for this long-anticipated sophomore effort, which again finds Carruth taking on writing, directing, acting, producing, scoring, lensing and editing duties. He’s even serving as his own distributor this time, with plans to release the picture in L.A. and Gotham in April, followed by a quick transition to repeat-viewing-friendly smallscreen play.

At the center of Upstream Color is a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who finds herself an unwitting participant in some exceedingly bizarre experiments. First a thief (Thiago Martins) attacks her and forces her to ingest a bio-engineered worm that brainwashes her into handing over her savings. When the critter starts to replicate inside her body, in scenes that give the picture a brief horror-movie spin, she’s rescued, after a fashion, by an older gentleman identified in the credits as Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who subjects her to a bizarre respiratory treatment involving one of his many farm pigs.

Left with little to no memory of what has happened, Kris finds herself drawn to a young man (Carruth) who seems to have experienced the same ordeal. The two walk and talk, ride the subway, make love and at one point cradle each other in a bathtub. They wander a nondescript-looking city, exchanging dialogue laced with random repetition and impenetrable non sequiturs. Even as their actions and circumstances defy comprehension, a troubling and poignant idea rises to the surface: the universal human compulsion to construct a sense of identity and ascribe meaning to one’s life, to impose order on disorder.

The futility of such a thing may well explain the befuddling, pretzel-like contours of the story; even the most attentive viewers may be hard-pressed to comprehend the significance of the women harvesting orchids, or why Sampler walks around using sound-recording equipment. Peculiar as it all may sound in outline, it’s even stranger to experience onscreen, arranged by Carruth in a complex symphonic framework that variously invokes Malick and Lynch in its narrative illogic, tactile lyricism and possible transmigration-of-souls subtext.

The picture is so densely edited (by Carruth and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints helmer David Lowery) that no single shot seems to last more than mere seconds, which combines with the shallow-focus compositions to produce an experience of near-continual disorientation. Factor in the almost omnipresent synth score, layered under tinkling piano chords, and the film seems to be attempting to induce a state of synaesthesia.

Walden, a frequent reference point here, provides a clue as to what Carruth is up to: In its intense levels of visual-aural stimulation, the film is at once transcendent and meditative, and in some ways a call for the sort of inner detox Thoreau prescribed. And since exalted literary works seem to be on the interpretive agenda, the transference of illness to a herd of pigs calls to mind nothing so much as the gospel accounts of Jesus casting out Legion by the Sea of Galilee.

Pretentious or sublime, these ineffable spiritual overtones are finally what make Upstream Color so approachable, for all its mysteries: This is a warmer, less foreboding picture than Primer, not moving in any conventional sense, but suffused with emotion all the same. One can only imagine what directions the actors were given in order to inhabit roles that seem to splinter and reassemble themselves at will, but Seimetz supplies a quietly haunting presence, particularly in the film’s tender closing fade.

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  • Jake says:

    Saw this at its premiere and was quite pleased with it. I don't think all movies should be like this one, but I'm very happy that some are. I literally left with a headache, but I think it was from not getting any lunch before the film, although the dizzying images might have enhanced it. The mere fact that the final 30 minutes of the film has no dialogue and yet makes sense and communicates something triumphant and beautiful is a testament to Carruth's smart storytelling. The film was polarizing within my group of friends with about half loathing the film and the other half loving it. I'm definitely from the latter camp.

    One thing from your Walden analysis, which I think was very interesting, was that Carruth stated in the Q+A that he chose Walden because he wanted to choose the most boring and pretentious book he could think of as the book they are forced to memorize. But that upon further study, he found that the passages from the book were relevant to the film. Sounds like one of those happy accidents that ended up working with the comparison you pulled out of the visual style mimicking the transcendence of Walden.

    BTW, loved your reference to Legion which I hadn't thought of since being a kid in Sunday school. But a very interesting idea of our demons ending up in the bodies of pigs. THAT is even more interesting than the whole Walden thing. Wish I could go back and ask Carruth if that was an influence in any way.

    Highly recommend this film to people interested in something unique and different. But the film is not for everyone.