Upstream Color (2013)

Upstream Color (2013) movie poster

director Shane Carruth
viewed: 07/14/2013

One might have been wondering what the guy that made that cool, off-beat, low budget indie time travel science fiction Primer (2004) did since that time.  That guy, writer/director/star/etc., Shane Carruth, didn’t make another movie until 2013, 9 years, but finally returned with another low budget independent (and independently distributed) science fiction film, Upstream Color.

It’s been 8 years since I saw Primer, but I remember it positively.  Re-reading what I wrote about it back then, it seems that I had forgotten the film’s more non-traditional narrative aspects that made the latter part of the film confounding to follow.  That would have been instructive to recall before setting forth on Upstream Color.

Because, quite frankly, you’re lucky if you can glean much of the actual narrative from Upstream Color in an initial viewing.

Ostensibly, it’s about a couple that meet, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth).  They share an ambiguous experience of having been drugged, brainwashed, bilked of all of their money and not knowing what the hell happened.

We get introduced to this as the film follows Kris through her mugging and abduction.  She is force-fed a worm that gives her abductor power over her.  As her abduction and bilking story unfold, and as she meets this other guy who has some similar wounds on his body (she eventually tries to cut the worm from her system), you’re kind of thinking that it’s all going to get explained somehow.  Their coming together will allow them to both tap into this mysterious experience and enlighten the characters and the audience.

Fat chance.

Actually, at a certain point, the elliptical, non-traditional narrative style gives you a sense that you’re never going to have it explained.  By the time you realize this, you’re understanding why critics have compared it to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).  It’s an impressionistic process.  We, the audience, are about as confused as the characters.  We don’t fully understand what’s going on.

Worms?  Pigs?  Orchids?  Shared realities?

I can’t explain it to you but the folks at Slate did a pretty good job of it.  I felt like I needed such an FAQ or Cliff’s Notes when I was through with the film.

The thing is that there is a very complicated narrative underneath all this impressionistic storytelling.  It’s convoluted and pretty weird.  And you’re not going to get it on the first time through.  It’s impossible.

In the end, I don’t know what I think of the film.  There is some very clever depth to it, perhaps like or surpassing Primer.  I think it’s very cool how Carruth produced and distributed his film, maintaining artistic control in the absolute, blazing a trail in the modern cinema economy.  But frankly, I didn’t get it.

The film’s tone is sort of consistent, musical or tonal (does that make sense? to say that a tone is tonal?), but it doesn’t build or crescendo, so it’s a little distancing emotionally.  Maybe that is the intent.  I don’t know.   It seems that this is the kind of film that people like re-watching and analyzing.  I thought it was interesting, and I’m sure that I’m still thinking it through, but as open to non-traditional filmmaking as I like to consider myself, I didn’t get it.  And now, knowing what I know (having read about it), I don’t know how you could get all that.  At least The Tree of Life didn’t have some complex three-part ecosystem that it had invented for you to not exactly understand.

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