“Upstream Color”: A vibrant puzzle of a film

Somebody is stalking successful young urban professionals, force-feeding them mind-nullifying worms, and exploiting their suggestive state to rob them of their homes, money and sense of confidence.

To make things worse, another mysterious figure is producing complicated mix tapes of ambient noise and using them to lure these victims to a remote area, where he performs ghastly surgery to remove the worms and implant them into the pigs he raises on his farm.

Through contact with his pigs he maintains a sort of astrally projected voyeurism of the victim’s vacant lives as they try to hold on and move forward. The pigs who die are thrown into a river where they decay and feed the growth of a vibrant flower that serve as host to …  the mind-parasite worms.

If this all sounds stranger than the strangest David Lynch film ever made, you’d be right. This phantasmagoria is the plot, if you will, of the recent film Upstream Color.

It is the second film of Shane Carruth, who directed Primer, another challenging film. A defiantly strange and difficult film, Upstream Color revels in its puzzling subject matter. Far removed from the sort of films that pass for works of imagination or horror these days, it is far from easy to categorize. Certainly it has elements of science fiction, horror, even romance, and it has an indie film feel as well. But it is far too unique to fit into any box.

In a manner of speaking, the film is similar to the early work of David Cronenberg, with its sense of body-based anxiety. But though the film starts with a shocking violation that can almost be interpreted as a form of rape, it continues on and travels many places, erecting shaky platforms of hope for its characters as well as its audience.

Its nearly impenetrable, meandering narrative may irritate more viewers than it will please. This is clearly not a film made for a mass audience. Quiet, slow and hypnotic, it relies heavily on the skill of its no-name cast to construct an emotional architecture for its audience to inhabit.

Carruth, who acts in addition to writing, directing, producing and scoring duties, shares screen time with Amy Seimetz. Carruth does well with his role – a former stockbroker getting by with whatever work he can get, living a life that the worms and their cohorts have hollowed out. He connects with Seimetz, another victim. We witness far more of what she’s been through, and can understand how she goes from young executive to a furtive, frightened casualty. Seimetz has a dignified, natural beauty that doesn’t interfere with her seeming raw and immediate. It’s rather enthralling watching her keep vulnerability at bay.

It’s likely you won’t really understand what is happening watching this film unfold, but looking back I feel this helps draw us into the story itself – the characters suffer from massive confusion, and we share their plight. It invests us in their story and creates a weird intimacy.

Aside from a few uncomfortable sequences there’s a sort of laconic beauty to Upstream Color. It reminds me of Terence Malick’s Days Of Heaven in its constant reference to a lush agricultural subtext to human drama. There’s a measured approach to everything: intense detail litters every corner of the film, and it seems tailor-made for repeat, obsessive viewing. It’s as much a puzzle as any Kubrick film, and if you want a benchmark of how willfully it resists explaining itself, think of  2001: A Space Odyssey or Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.

I find it easy to praise the film, not only for the satisfying experience it provides a viewer willing to supply the focus and patience required, but equally for its willingness to challenge. Films of every genre have suffered of late from a variety of commercial formulas. Even films that are taken seriously tend to seem more conventional than in past decades. Upstream Color represents an experience that is now more uncommon than ever: the film that gives your imagination room to roam around.

Movie information:

Upstream Color
Written and directed by Shane Carruth
2013, not rated, 96 min.

Photo: Upstream Color




Frederick Barr
Frederick Barr

Frederick Barr has been involved in communications for over 25 years, first as a creative professional in advertising and design, and more recently as an information activist.