A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.
Shane Carruth: Jack-of-all-trades, master of none? Absolutely not. As writer, director, producer, cinematographer, film scorer, and actor, he shines as a man of many talents in his second feature film, the beautifully trippy Upstream Color. His impeccable attention to detail and powerfully intimate and up-close filming invites audiences into the visible and not so visible elements of a mysterious parasite; its internal travels within the human body (presented through a microscope), and the mental turmoil it creates for those involved.
I thought the story was dark but enjoyable – some people have labeled the film as sci-fi, yet the fragility of the filming and the allure of the emotionally and mentally broken characters makes it seem pretty convincing that such a thing could be possible in our world.
The pace of the film was sometimes a bit distracting, and although I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as rushed, it seemed a little flittering, with dialogue continuing over a number of scenes, suggesting it had no particular place. But then, perhaps this was echoing the fact neither Kris nor Jeff felt they had a particular place to belong. Frequently in the movie, scenes seemed unconnected to the previous, flicking between mental states.
The movie is also home to some pretty unusual characters that definitely add another level of eeriness to the plot. They seem to float on and off the screen and in and out of the story in a ghostlike manner. Sometimes it is debatable that they even exist. The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) has the third largest role in the movie, yet barely a word comes out of his lips. He silently appears to operate as a noise collector, worm remover, and pig habit reviewer. Nevertheless, he plays this totally ambiguous part well – silent but effective in his slow movements and calm, pensive mannerisms as he saunters around his pig farm, occasionally venturing out.
‘Thief’ (Thiago Martins) is another curious being that we see at the beginning of the movie during our first introduction to a very strange plant-human-pig life cycle. The process involves being infused by a parasitic matter that flips Kris’ (Amy Seimetz) life into the most mind-plaguing mess after a pretty graphic scene where Thief spikes her with an infected worm. This is not just any worm. This worm FUBARs those it inhibits. Merely existing in a state of grave loneliness and confusion, Kris’ character evokes empathy from audiences with her sallow skin, hollow eyes, and distant vacancy of a lost soul.
By chance Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), a fellow victim to the worm. They are controlled by this poison but neither of them holds awareness. They grow with each other, trying to patch up the cracked fragments of their being, whilst interlacing in a deep unexplainable connection. Searching for solace in one another, they fall in love. With their bond they share paranoia, anger, frustration, confusion, and calm; each emotion fantastically acted by the two main protagonists. Amy Seimetz gave a superb and thoroughly convincing performance, pouring out her range and ability to switch emotions continuously throughout. The supporting cast, although with pretty small and quiet roles, each added great substance and atmosphere to the story.
A particularly spectacular scene shows Kris gracefully flowing like an estuary of silk in her bed before the peace and beauty is disturbed by the visibility of the worm slithering under her skin in near-surfacing bulges. The quiet, delicate filming of soft tones and gentle movements brings elegance to this unsettling image. This scene notably presents Carruth’s detailing and softness when dealing with a horrific matter.
Deep, twisted, and beautiful, Upstream Color is pretty much open to interpretation, which is part of its charm. In an interview with Sundance London Carruth stated about the film, “I would choose not to say much at all,” referring to it as ‘mythic.’ Further explaining that he ‘made a story where he crippled people on some level and left them in a state where they don’t quite know how they got there.’ With carefully chosen minimal dialogue, much of the film is understood and told with sound, color, and patterns, which worked perfectly with its dynamic dimensions of recent past, present, confusion, and clarity. I think the story was well written and the use of very little discourse between the characters built up the sheer confusion and loneliness that the plot was telling, emphasizing the internal emptiness. A whirlwind of handsome textures flow over the screen in partner with eruptions of noises, timed perfectly in moments of suspense and disorder.
I have no shame in admitting that I found the film pretty confusing at times, and parts were fairly unclear, but I think this was mapped with intention on some level to share with the audience the confusion that Kris and Jeff each suffered when possessed by the foreign organism. The more I have thought about Upstream Color, the more I have realized the profundity and sheer beauty of it’s force as a refreshing, discreet, and artistic sci-fi meets thriller meets romance. It is in no way boisterous or in your face; Carruth displays how to delightfully and attractively film a lecherous parasite! It’s a tastefully kaleidoscopic experience.
I give Upstream Color a 7/10