How to talk about Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (ERBP DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming)? How to praise its artistic riches without revealing all its tricks? Or perhaps an even more subtle challenge, how to discuss it without locking it down into the kind of facile “sense” on which it clearly places a low priority? But, in a funny way, the second film from the writer/director of 2004 cult fave Primer itself offers encouragement to tackle such knotty issues. After all, if it’s still possible in 2013 that someone can make a film as smart, as bold, and as uncompromising as this, well, it offers proof that cinema is still a medium of ideas and surprises, in spite of itself, and still worth picking apart.
Whatever you do, don’t watch it with that person you know (and we all know at least one) who can’t watch a film without asking, “Why’d he do that?” or “What does that mean?” at every incremental development. At the beginning, at least, you won’t know how to explain it even if you were so inclined. A man scrapes the leaves of a plant. Two boys pour water over a grub worm and drink what results. They perform eerie synchronized routines. The man, bearing a grub in a capsule, meets a woman at a nightclub. Good films often teach you how to watch them. Upstream Color does this more than most, and while it’s not necessarily an intuitive lesson at first, the elliptical opening reel provides excellent preparation for what lies ahead.
The man (Thiago Martins) is a thief running the sweetest con ever—total mind control. He uses a special technique to colonize a mark’s brain and body and leave him or her utterly drained and utterly unaware of it happening. The woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), wakes up on the side of the road with no idea how her life was ruined. More has been stolen from her than her money.
As she starts to put the pieces back together, she meets Jeff (Carruth), or rather she resists meeting him, having built a cowed shell around her destroyed life. But Jeff persists, and suddenly, Upstream Color is a love story, albeit an extraordinarily clear-eyed and adroit one. They are both damaged, as it turns out—he hints at a drug problem—but their woundedness seems to bring them closer together. So much in common. And then she starts retelling his childhood memories as her own without realizing she’s doing it.
There is more, so much more. Thoreau’s Walden plays a key role. And then there’s an older man (Andrew Sensenig) who spends much of his time sampling and manipulating field recordings into unearthly sounds, though perhaps that’s not as unusual as his other hobby: tending a herd of pigs implanted with the wriggling parasites he pulls out of hapless strangers. How the wide-swinging orbit of this character (dubbed “The Sampler” in the credits) intersects with the others is one of the areas where the complex tissue of connections holding Upstream Color together stretches thinnest. But if you’re still with it at that point, you might as well see it out. You’d be missing one of the most singular cinema events of the year if you didn’t.
Carruth’s exponentially twisty time-travel thriller Primer confounded viewers with its hard sci-fi originality and rigor, as created with a soft-sci-fi budget (reportedly about $7,000). He could have written his own ticket to a studio deal, maybe even a minor summer tentpole, but instead he spent the next nine years trying to make the films he wanted to make. Upstream Color, financed with private money under the Hollywood radar, clearly belongs in that category. (In addition to writing, directing, producing, shooting, editing, and starring, he wrote and performed the score as well.) That Upstream Color even exists represents both a triumph and a rebuke to the mainstream film-production system that couldn’t spring for a work this daring and, for all its polish, most likely inexpensive.
Not least because, unlike most of what you’ll be buying popcorn for this summer, Upstream Color will leave you thinking. In a few of the handful of interviews Carruth has given about the film, he has stated that for him, it’s about identity, and the loss of identity, and how one copes with that. What the film gets at most for this viewer is connectivity, and the relations between man, woman, pig, worm, water, earth, and time—the awesome and terrible interrelation of the life cycle and the daily incorporation and casting out of the very atoms we all share in common. Whatever you get out of it, if you make it through once, you’re probably going to want to watch it again.