Upstream Color (2013)
Dir. Shane Carruth
Essay for Paste Magazine
If Shane Carruth's time-traveling debut "Primer" was about outthinking what you might do in the future, his second movie, "Upstream Color," is about deciphering why you feel the way you do right now. This is not by any means an easy question to answer, and Carruth measures the distance from our actions to our understanding with all the confusion and swirls of emotion that accompany our worst decisions. He does so in a way that taps into some of the best elements of the current American moviescape -- the editing is crisp and pushes the story along at a clip, the performances are naturalistic with an ear toward the cinematic, and the story takes genre conventions and turns them into idiosyncrasies. The result is an intense and almost uncomfortably personal film that doesn't always make perfect sense, but which has such a grasp on both silent and modern cinema that it's guaranteed to be considered by some the best movie of the year.
The film is at turns mystifying and bluntly oblique, but plot itself is, on paper, relatively simple science fiction. There is a worm that, when ingested, places the eater under a susceptible hypnosis. From there, a triangle emerges. 1. The Thief (Thiago Martins) uses the worm to drain the bank accounts and control the lives of 2. people who have eaten the worm who, when discarded by the Thief, are summoned to 3. the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who transfers the worm from the victim into a pig for safe keeping. The Sampler then sends the amnesiac back into their broken and incoherently destroyed life.
OK, so maybe it's not exactly simple, but really the plot is just a distraction from the deeply emotional exploration lurking below its surface. Carruth isn't particularly good at conveying what you would normally consider "plot points," but the film pivots so nimbly from science fiction to romantic comedy to family drama and back that "plot" is very rarely in sight, let alone something to worry about. "Upstream," like "Primer," will take multiple viewings to simply understand the surface of what's happening, and even then the puzzle will still be missing some key pieces. His movies don't always add up, but here it doesn't matter -- the emotions are lucid from moment one. The film's beauty is in the relationship between two of those post-worm victims: Kris, played with the emotional energy of a silent movie siren by Amy Seimetz, and Jeff, played by Carruth himself.
Carruth is essentially a one-man band -- he wrote, directed, produced, co-edited, scored and acted in the film -- but his foundation is Seimetz's bodily, dense performance. The Thief forces Kris to ingest one of the worms, and it is through her experience that the entire sprawling narrative opens up. It's impressive to convincingly play a woman totally baffled by the current state of her life, but the real joy comes when Seimetz's acting and Carruth's direction work in a kind of grotesque cinematic union. The worm grows in Kris's body and she slithers around her bed, either unable to control her limbs or losing her humanity to this thing inside her. She works up the courage to evacuate the invader the only way she knows how: a kitchen knife. These are the images that will stay with you, and these are the moments when we know Kris intimately. There are so many moments like this in the film that it feels like Carruth can barely keep control of them, and they accumulate to what is in my mind an almost unbearable bummer of an ending. The movie, though, with all of its weird sidetracks and dead ends, is so uniquely itself that it is worth the frustration.
"Upstream Color" is by its nature a flawed movie. Carruth is clearly pushing himself both cinematically and emotionally. Every aspect of the filmmaking from the sound design to the cinematography stands out in some way, but the entire thing still feels just beyond reach. The story never makes enough sense to come to full fruition. There is an entire strand involving Henry David Thoreau's Walden that I can barely pretend to understand. And while this is all very fragmented, it creates for itself a certain kind of whole -- one in which the audience emerges with more questions than answers, and with the same disoriented notion of time and love and control that Carruth's characters must feel. What just happened to me? Why do I feel this way? How did I get here?