Breaking the Cycle: 'Upstream Color'

For all its impenetrable possibilities, the most obvious thing one can say about Upstream Color is that it is great.

Upstream Color

Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Myles McGee, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke
Rated: NR
Studio: erbp
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-04-05 (General release)
UK date: 2013-03-01 (General release)

By its very definition, a victim is someone who is "injured, destroyed, or sacrificed" or "subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment." For said individual (or group), the crime is often less difficult than the aftermath. In the moment, the harm comes quickly and without anticipation. In those long, often equally painful days/weeks/months/years afterwards, the mind goes into a tailspin while the physical wounds, if any, heal and scar over. Things fester. They rot. The result is a changed human being, a person no longer lacking a tag. Call it victim, or perhaps survivor, but the truth remains that they have been changed forever. Only 'owning' what happened to them, that psychological shell game that purports to empower the damaged and distraught, can one supposedly walk upright again and move on.

This is the problem facing Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) in the new film Upstream Color. A sly combination of two distinct Davids - Cronenberg and Lynch - this unusual love story centers on individuals who have been harmed, and how their victimization becomes a means to a much bigger ends. Our couple are, at first, unrelated. Kris is drugged by a man (Thiago Martins) who uses an unusual grub found in a specific riverbank orchid to hypnotize and manipulate his marks. She ends up giving him everything - her house, her coin collection, and more importantly, her life. While he benefits, she ends up out of work and struggling. One day, she meets up with Jeff, an ex-junkie who works off the books for a high priced financial consulting firm. His past is equally problematic, and soon they both learn of their similar situation with the aforementioned thief.

Then, there is someone called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a man who makes it his mission to find the victims of this unusual crime, "cure" them of their ongoing ailment, and transfer said struggles to the livestock on his farm. As a result, Kris and Jeff become close, though they are haunted by dreams and desires they can't explain. Even more unusual, the creatures the Sampler has used to save our couple become inseparable. In the end, all sides meet to discover the truth, their connection to the con artist, and what it really means to 'own' you pain. It may not make much rational sense, but the facts becomes apparent in every vivid shot, in every moment of anguish, every feeling of discomfort, every excruciating epiphany.

Imagine Eraserhead, in color, without said film's anti-procreation attitude or mechanical post-apocalyptic feel, or better yet, a twist on the typical drama where everything is spelled out in allegory, not monologuing black and white. This is Upstream Color, the latest from writer/director/actor/producer/editor and composer Shane Carruth. Known best for his time travel cult classic Primer, as well as the frequency of his role as filmmaker (twice only in the last decade), he is the heir apparent to Terrence Malick, a man who makes movies bursting with sound and image as well as ideas and insights.

Audio is an important part of this almost dialogue-less film. The Sampler "senses" aural cues, using them (and then recreating them) in order to experience what his "patients" feel. The bugs involved in the hypnotic potion respond, as most worms do, to low guttural growls. From dialogue heard off camera to conversations taking place in different points in time, Carruth creates soundscapes that are disorienting and disturbing. He wants us to pay attention to the mix, to miss things the first time only to discover them later on. He then combines everything with images that remind the viewer of works like The Tree of Life, Mulholland Dr. and Crash. If ambition were gemstones, Carruth and Upstream Color would be a treasure trove of diamonds.

This is a complicated movie with a complex motive. The main theme appears to be overcoming your inner demons (symbolized by the psychotropic grubs) and breaking the cycle of pain. There are also assumptions and inferences, ideas that may seem oblique at first but make more sense when pulled apart and prioritized. Take The Sampler. He is busy making noises and recording same, all in an attempt to recreate events and experiences. He does the same, sitting among his animals, using their presence and his memory of what they represent to try and relive the import of the past. It's very creepy, like serial killer/child molester creepy. While he helps people (he cures Kris and Jeff, sort of), it also reeks of the trophies some psychopaths take so they can fulfill the fantasy in their heads. The Sampler is also the source, his actions the reason the thief can distill his hypnotic drug.

But there is remorse here, and it's something that Upstream Color dwells in. Kris cannot relate to people because of the embarrassment she feels over being fooled. She works in a small printing shop, careful to measure out her remaining emotions on a need to know basis. Jeff is equally shell-shocked, his high profile life and previous marriage destroyed by addiction, and then the actions of the thief. Together, they are partners in pain, and Upstream Color seems to argue both for and against such couplings. There is an enabling element to their relationship and eventual marriage that turns their protections against each other. Before long, they are growing apart, angry that the thing that brought them together - being the victims - is now driving a wedge between them.

Of course, Carruth has no expository explanation for all of this. He sets up his intriguing premise (the opening 25 minutes may be the most compelling cinematic statement of 2013) and then lets it play out, without comment, without context. We are left putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and even then, this is a filmmaker who doesn't reward (or reject) us for the right/wrong answer. There is an element of free association here that's truly mind bending.

You could gather 30 people in a room to watch this film and one imagines at least 30 differing responses. This is interactive cinema at its most profound, a hook into the film fan psyche that provides a sense of bliss no shot of serotonin could. For all its impenetrable possibilities, the most obvious thing one can say about Upstream Color is that it is great. After seeing it, you'll be changed...perhaps, not forever, but definitively within the stale mainstream movie mindset we currently live in.


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