Film review of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” (USA, 2013)
“The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it.” – Walden, Henry David Thoreau
Nine years following his groundbreaking sci-fi feature debut, Primer, Shane Carruth returns with a vengeance. Upstream Color is an amalgam of sensory experience, unfurled narrative threads, human longings, and cosmic inquiry in the form of a sci-fi film with literary underpinnings. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Carruth doesn’t want to waste time tying up loose ends; he’d rather play with questions and metaphors in an impressionistic adventure that leaves no stones unturned.
It’s better to talk about Upstream Color in terms of its gestures and impact rather than its explicit narrative. This is because, in a nonlinear sequence of muddled events that circle back and interconnect throughout the story, there’s only a certain amount of surmisable plot. A skeletal sketch: In the beginning, Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young creative professional, experiences a life-altering encounter with a stranger. The stranger hypnotizes her, forces her to recite passages from Walden and complete origami puzzles, prevents her from sleeping for days at a time, injects a worm into her body, makes her withdraw all of her savings from the bank, and then leaves her to wake up in a puddle of blood in a ransacked house. Upon awakening, Kris is quite literally a different person. She’s unemployed, broke, and utterly alone with only a hazy, obscured memory of having been terribly violated. You’d think this scenario would be the last place for a meet-cute. But then comes a man named Jeff (Carruth) who, inexplicably drawn to Kris, pursues her despite her guarded front and multiple warnings against potential intimacy. It emerges that Jeff, too, has experienced a horrific life-altering episode which has rendered him unsure of his identity. The two forge a fraught yet passionate romance that spans the rest of the film and culminates in an attempt to piece together their shared traumatic experience and ultimately exact revenge on the responsible parties.
That’s the plot… sort of. Upstream Color also swims in lyrical montages of naturalistic imagery, evoking a cosmic awareness of the life cycle and our indelible ties to the natural world. Worms fertilize, orchids bloom, pigs procreate, and water flows as Carruth highlights our interconnectedness and reminds us that nature is still a timeless, mysterious force that drives us and cannot be trumped by the conditions of modern society. Aided by relevant passages from Walden that are recited intermittently, the interaction of the natural world and the more bone-chilling sci-fi elements (such as genetic reconstruction and sinister mind games) happens organically and keeps us on edge even as it awes us. These senses of wonder and fear pervade the entire film. However hit-and-miss the specific plot threads, Carruth countervails the film’s flaws with his bold and uncompromising desire to captivate. There’s never a dull moment. Whether we’re navigating the narrative ellipses of Kris and Jeff’s relationship as they argue over ostensibly shared memories or whether we’re being subjected to horrific images of worms crawling under skin, the film is by all means engaging.
Upstream Color is the kind of film on which you impose your own framework. It explores subjectivity through the idea that Kris and Jeff must construct personal narratives from chaotic external circumstances. Through the assemblage of assaulting soundscapes, nonlinear editing, and attention to nuance in visual detail, Carruth has us experience the film in much the same way. The film’s (and Kris and Jeff’s) reality–instead of existing within the delineated constructs that are prevalent in commercial films–is experienced as a fractured, illogical ride in which the facts are always under scrutiny and the only reliable element is the circular force of nature. Carruth asks us to consider cause and effect on both a cosmic and interpersonal scale, raising questions about ontology and our perceived control over our own existence. While at first it seems as if Kris and Jeff experience little to no control over their own lives, they develop agency amidst the tides of uncertainty, creating a shared subjectivity that strengthens their bond and defends against the overwhelming losses they’ve respectively experienced. And so, viewed through a more humanistic lens, the film is also about the possibility of human connection between two people who deem themselves damaged. Through unspoken words and delicately crafted space for inference, Carruth shows us that intimacy is not only possible, but that it can actually flourish under these (or any) abject circumstances if one is only willing to be vulnerable.
In all its inchoate glory, Upstream Color is an exercise in phenomenological poetry. Whether interpreted within the purview of science, literature, film, philosophy, or humanism, there’s a lot to work with here. The film will leave you reeling even if you’re unable to articulate why, and that alone is a hallmark of good filmmaking.