For as long as there have been rules established as to the “acceptable” format of a fictional film, there have been filmmakers working on the outside of those limitations.
These experimental filmmakers push the boundaries of narrative by submitting a work of personal significance that may offer varied interpretation. Sometimes, these experimental niche projects cross over to the commercial market and general audiences are exposed to alternative formats of narrative. Most recently the work of David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Darren Aronofsky have challenged viewers’ ideas of what a movie is and can do. This is a good thing; it encourages the average movie viewer to accept films with something to say.
Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer (2004), was made for $7,000 and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance US. The film’s scientifically realistic take on time travel was boldly original and made on a micro-budget – the perfect combination that should result in an immediate follow-up in the form of a big-budget Hollywood release by the director. Years passed, however, and no such film was released. Now, nine years later, Carruth has premiered his latest film Upstream Color. The budget and resulting production value is raised, but shockingly Carruth has returned with something even more baffling and fascinating than his debut.
Completely unapologetic in its density, Upstream Color tells a story difficult to put into words. The gist of it involves a man and a woman, drawn together over a bizarre, shared experience they feel unable to talk about but know has altered their lives.
The film’s opening act is the most straightforward and easy to digest. It depicts a character credited only as “Thief” (Thiago Martins) forcing the woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) to swallow a living larva. The larva has some sort of hallucinogenic effect on Kris and under the influence of the drug she is completely controlled by the Thief. He tells her his head is made of the same material as the sun, and she cannot look at him. He has Kris sign over all of her bank accounts and the equity on her home to him. She wakes up later completely unaware of what happened.
Later, Kris meets the man – Jeff (Shane Carruth) on a train they both commute on. They are drawn to each other and it is suggested that the Thief has taken them both advantage of in the past, but they can’t remember the details.
From here, we follow their romance develop. Keep in mind, this is not a romantic comedy – their relationship is dry and without personality by design. Also in the mix is a pig farmer whose pigs have some mysterious, direct connection to the character’s lives and emotions.
It is a great accomplishment that director Shane Carruth takes this plot and allows you to take it seriously.
While the narrative is challenging to follow, the disconnected imagery is truly telling a precise story. While the “look” of shots like Kris and Jeff standing in the foreground while flocks of birds fly away overhead may draw reference to the work of Terrence Malick, the goals here are very different. Upstream Color is not purely a philosophical exploration – there is an answer to be figured out.
At a screening of the film in Chicago, Illinois, USA in April of 2013, director Shane Carruth described his relationship with the film as being “90% locked down”. In other words, the plot is not as open ended as it may seem; there are “correct” connections to be drawn and a solution to be uncovered through repeated viewings.
In technical departments, writer-director-producer Carruth’s authorship extends even further as he operates the camera shots he is not acting in, and even composed the score. The characters are almost constantly within their own world of shallow depth of field – isolated from their environments. The sound design and editing is also top notch. It is rare to see such a singular artistic force complete a project that is elevated above self-indulgence to excess. Luckily, in this case, the effect of this tight grip of control from the director only adds to the emotional subtext of the story.
Because of the obtuse nature of the mise en scene, Upstream Color cannot be “generally” recommended. It will certainly not satisfy those looking for a typical movie experience. However, to those willing to challenge themselves with a film, it will be rewarding to have experienced such an original and layered piece of work. Regardless of if this film finds a wide audience, it is sure to achieve the relative success that experimental projects can still find in art-house markets. Fans of experimental films should seek out Upstream Color.
Upstream Color is in very limited release in the US, and opens at Sundance London on April 25th, 2013.
Review: Upstream Color