UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

UPSTREAM COLOR
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

upstream_color_xlgBack in 2004, director Shane Carruth made his debut feature, PRIMER. It was a little indie film about four guys trying to start their own computer company in a garage, and mysterious storage lockers, and time travel. The movie is told in such a way that you only figure it out a little at a time, but it was a terrific first film, and it made Carruth a director to look for. Unfortunately, it took him until 2013 to release his second film, UPSTREAM COLOR, and it is in very limited release in just a few cities. I hope it’s not as long a wait for his next one.

For some reason, I just like the title itself. UPSTREAM COLOR. Just a really cool name for a movie. So what is it actually about? Well, that’s a little tougher to explain. But I’ll try.

Carruth has a talent for enigmatic films that you need to really think about. In this vein, he’s a lot like David Lynch or David Cronenberg, although Carruth’s films are nothing like theirs. How much you’ll enjoy UPSTREAM COLOR depends on how strongly you feel you have to have all the answers, and how open you are to new experiences.

UPSTREAM COLOR begins with some kids drinking some weird concoction made from little grubs harvested from plants by a mysterious guy. Is he some kind of mad scientist, or something else entirely? When the kids drink the liquid, they are able to read each other’s minds – or it looks that way. When one kid tries to hit another, the other one is able to know exactly how to deflect the blow. Two other kids close their eyes and do the exact same hand movements in synch. What exactly are these grubs?

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The guy then kidnaps a woman at a bar named Kris (Amy Seimetz, who is actually quite striking in some scenes), using a Taser. He makes her ingest one of the grub/worms and then brings her back to a house where he proceeds to brainwash her. He convinces her that ice water is most wonderful reward she can get, simply by telling her it is so. He tells her she cannot look into his face, because it is made of the same material that makes up the sun, and it is too bright to look at. He makes her copy out long passages from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”  and fold the papers into links to a giant paper chain. He also gets her to take out a loan on her house and withdraw all of her money from the bank and give it to him.

At one point, when she’s in bed, she sees worms running under her skin, and tries to remove them with a kitchen knife.

We are then introduced to another odd gentleman, called simply The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) in the credits. He performs an odd operation on Kris involving her and a small pig, the grafting of some of the pig’s flesh onto Kris’s body, and what looks like a blood transfusion between them. The Sampler also runs a pig farm, presumably stocked with pigs that have been used in similar operations. The Sampler gets his name because when he isn’t tending to his pig farm, he is wandering around the woods with a microphone and a synthesizer, recording all kinds of strange noises and sampling them to play back later.

After her bank account is drained, Kris gets away and tries to adjust to normal life again, but it’s hard to go back. She loses her job, and her personality becomes almost robotic. It is then that she meets Jeff (director Carruth) on a commuter train and they begin having conversations that eventually lead to a romantic relationship. And then she begins to realize that maybe Jeff has experienced a similar abduction in his past, because he has the same kind of knife marks on his leg that she does…

So what do Thoreau, pigs and the ingesting of strange worms have to do with each other? You’ll have to see UPSTREAM COLOR for yourself, and it may take some work to figure it out. UPSTREAM COLOR is the kind of movie that does not provide ready answers, but that’s okay. There are so many movies that try to explain every little detail of what’s going on, that it’s a relief sometimes to find a movie like this, that refuses to make it easy. I’m still not one hundred percent sure about every aspect of the movie, but I do know that I found the film to be very compelling, and I’m sure I’ll see it again at some point.

Kris (Amy Seimetz) undergoes a strange abduction in Shane Carruth's UPSTREAM COLOR.

Kris (Amy Seimetz) experiences a strange abduction in Shane Carruth’s UPSTREAM COLOR.

The direction by Carruth (who also wrote the script) is quite good, as is the cinematography (which, it turns out, is also by Carruth). It’s a visually interesting film, with minimal dialogue in its first half, and yet it might just captivate you from the moment it begins. Just go in expecting something completely different, and you won’t be disappointed. This is not like the typical Hollywood film. It’s another animal entirely.

And for that reason, because it plays by its own rules, I give UPSTREAM COLOR three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives UPSTREAM COLOR ~three and a half knives.

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