"Upstream Color" is one of the year's most intriguing films.
I don't normally review films that are out on video or On Demand, but I'm going to make an exception for "Upstream Color." This is a film that demands to be seen and discussed. Besides, it only received an extremely limited theatrical run before hitting video and streaming options so very few even had a chance to see it on a big screen.
"Upstream Color" is the sort of film that forms in the minds of most when the words "art film" are tossed about. Ethereal, cerebral, abstract, it is a film that will confound just as many as it intrigues and engages. It is centered on communicating ideas, sensations and impressions more so than a rigidly defined plot. It is a film of ideas and concepts and thoughts.
I fully admit that I walked away from watching "Upstream Color" not knowing precisely what to make of it. I feel like I "got it" in the broad strokes, although there were a couple points that felt unclear. But then, this also doesn't seem like the sort of film one is expected to "get" after one viewing. Or even two.
But don't mistake this as some intentionally opaque piece of avant garde filmmaking. Shane Carruth (who wrote, directed, edited, produced, scored and acted in the film) has crafted a film that requires something of its viewer, one that is layered and thoughtful. It may be difficult to grasp at times, but never impenetrably so. If anything, I was fully engaged from start to finish and found myself wanting to dig deeper by going for a second viewing.
The story follows a man and a woman who must reassemble their broken lives after having been hypnotized and robbed of everything. This is done when a mysterious man (credited only as "The Thief") force feeds them a grub that makes anyone who ingests it extremely susceptible to suggestion. He then toys with his victims before essentially forcing them to mortgage their life away and empty their bank account.
However, there is another man, known as The Sampler, who has found a way to help rehabilitate these victims, by extracting the worms that grow inside them and transplanting them into pigs. Following this process, he somehow can tap into a sort of mental/psychic bond between the pigs and every rehabilitated victim, sharing in their thoughts, actions and memories.
None of that is really spelled out. There's very little dialogue and precisely zero exposition. What dialogue is there exists to push us further into the emotional state and relationship of Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth). There's the central mystery that unravels and the struggles that these two go through as they try to understand what's happened, but Carruth mutes it. And as such, it's clear he wants to use those elements more as a metaphor for love and relationships and the ways we find ourselves drawn to others, even when we can't explain it and the synchronicity that occurs when we often least expect it.
Carruth made a big splash within the film world when he made his debut film nearly a decade ago with "Primer," a time travel movie that makes "Upstream Color" seem downright simplistic by comparison. But "Primer" was a slick, professional film that you would never guess was made on a $5,000 budget. Carruth works similar wonders here, giving the film a rich look and feel despite being made for next to nothing.
There were questions of whether Carruth even had an interest in making more films given the gap between these two, but it's clear he's got a lot to say and a lot more to show us. "Upstream Color," if nothing else, is a marvelous film to look at and listen to. Shot gorgeously and scored and edited in a way that makes the film feel ethereal and dreamlike, as though we're undergoing the same sort of experience as The Sampler. It's amazing, engrossing stuff.
I won't pretend I understand everything that Carruth is saying or doing with "Upstream Color," but that's OK. It's a difficult thing to craft a film that is both enigmatic and yet also coherent, yet that's what is accomplished here. This is a film that challenges me and forces me to keep up. That's rare these days. If nothing else, I can't wait to dig into this further and see what other layers Carruth has to show me.
"Upstream Color" available to stream on Netflix and Amazon or purchase on DVD.