If you’re a science fiction buff, indie-spirited moviegoer, or savvy Internet user who can’t look away from the next buzzy Reddit thread, you probably know the name Shane Carruth. In 2004, Carrtuh directed the mind-melting time travel film Primer, which gained notoriety for costing only $7,000, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and being thoroughly constructed in the eyes the science-minded. After that… Carruth more or less disappeared.
Throughout the next decade, details leaked on potential new projects for the director, but it wasn’t until the announcement of the 2013 Sundance slate that Carruth’s cult fanbase received official word of his return. Upstream Color marked the DIY filmmaker’s second time behind and in front of the camera, and early snippets of the film hinted at something equally heady and even more grandiose than Primer. The film arrived this week to hype raging on message boards, tweets, Facebook posts, along with an eager Sundance audienced. Exhale, Cult of Carruth: Upstream Color delivered on its promise.
Whereas Primer was praised for his intricate details, Upstream Color excels for bathing the audience in imagery that glows and blooms. Even when it’s introducing us into its alternative universe, Carruth never straight-up explains his intentions. He plays fast and loose in his introduction: we see a mysterious man collecting blue powder from plants and feeding it to worms; we meet Krissy (Amy Seimetz), a young visual effects supervisor trying to meet a deadline; we see her confronted by the botanist, who stuffs a worm down her throat before kidnapping her; we see her reduced to an empty shell, hypnotized by the man and forced to hand over her entire life’s worth to him; we see her dumped back into society without a clue what’s happened.
And that’s just the first 20 minutes (with plenty of details missing). Upstream Color has an enormous scope and its own set of rules — when pigs enter Krissy’s story with a Matrix-like throughline, it’s clear that Carruth spent his 10 years out of the action cracking the world-building. It’s presented all like a dream, the camera floating around space and picking up what it can, when it can. It’s not your typical science fiction film; a statement that becomes more true after Krissy meets another victim of the worm-hypnotistsm organization.
Upstream Color is founded in sci-fi, but the brunt of the story is about Krissy bouncing back into life. She connects with Jeff (played by Carruth), also displaced in the world after disappearing for a month. As the two investigate their disappearances, they become romantically intertwined — and may already have been previous to meeting. Carruth wallows in the lives of his two characters, relying on sensory reactions to the couple’s journey rather than exploring them through dialogue or recognizable scene structure. This is a mood movie — and it’s got a whole lot of mood.
Adding to the powerful imagery is Seimetz’s heartbreaking performance. Lingering shots of objects can only get a movie so far. In Upstream Color, the quiet moments are filled with the gears turning in Krissy’s mind.
With movies like Upstream Color, the conversation always steers towards the answers. When we see a masked man remove a piece of Krissy’s body and place it inside a piglet, what does that mean? Why does Jeff suddenly barricade himself and Krissy inside his house, relying on Walden quotes as his form of communication? The answers are likely there — a few hours after watching the film, I attempted to explain the plot of Upstream Color to someone who had never heard of it and found myself even more invested in the film. But the quest for resolution can also be distracting. Upstream Color surmises human interaction through the clash of nature and man-made constructions. It depicts redemption as a windy road, confusing and peppered with moments lacking context. It is an epic story to tell in an intimate scenario.
Upstream Color is one of the few movies that demands rewatching and long nights at the bar, throwing down in a hated discussion. It is layered, grand, and imperfect. Is that the movie the Internet craves? When Carruth self-distributes his second film on April 5, we’ll find out. Or perhaps, by the eighth viewing.
[Photo Credit: ERBP Pictures]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches