In a time when films ask so little of their audience, Shane Carruth's masterpiece is a breath of fresh air.
Upstream ColorDirector: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Thiago Martins, Andrew Sensenig
Distributor: New Video
Release date: 2013-05-07
Watching Upstream Color is like walking into someone else’s dream; it’s an experience so revelatory, terrifying and ultimately so intimate, that you can’t help but feel as if you’re trespassing, yet you refuse to leave. Similarly, revealing too much about the film’s plot would be like offering an explanation to a dream that must be deciphered by whoever dreamt it. For the purpose of delivering a synopsis, it’s safe to say that Upstream Color is about two people who meet, fall in love and must then suffer the consequences of being together.
The film opens with an almost cryptic sequence in which we watch a man, known only as the Thief (Thiago Martins), manipulate plants from which he collects maggots which he then uses as drugs. We come to understand that the effect of the maggots in the human body leads the ingester to become a slave to whomever gave it to them. This is how we meet Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who is drugged by the Thief, who makes her empty her bank accounts, lose her job and then sends her to a farm where the grown maggots are extracted from her by someone known as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig).
After removing the parasites from her body, the Sampler inserts them into pigs, who will eventually play a larger role in the scheme of things, and who happen to establish a symbiotic relationship with the human who harvested the parasites. After awaking from this trance, Kris finds herself in a world without employment, money or purpose. She believes she’s a drug addict. Almost by chance, Kris meets Jeff (played by writer/director Shane Carruth) a man with whom she seems to share a similar background.
She reluctantly begins an affair with him, but is often wary because of his mysterious ways. Little do they both know that in fact, Jeff too was a victim of the Thief, and now they’re both at the mercy of the Sampler. Reading any plot summary to Upstream Color will undoubtedly result in scoffing and eye rolling, because in simple words it sounds absolutely stupid. Yet watching the film, these events unfold with such delicacy and poetry that one might end up wondering if the story was in fact so damn simple.
In a nutshell, Carruth has created the most original film romance since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; a film which similarly used wacky science fiction concepts to take a deep look at the way in which relationships are handled in art. Somehow during the last three decades or so, after the advent of the blockbuster romantic comedy, we went from consuming films about the wonders of being in love to movies in which love is something that must be dissected, explained and examined before being consumed.
Upstream Color therefore shows us a distinctively poignant portrait of how scary love is, how we have become so cynical and jaded that we can’t just embrace it without finding cons along the way. What turns out to be so wonderful about the film is how Carruth takes this seemingly shallow concept and turns it into an allegory worthy of Terrence Malick. The cryptic filmmaker has become known for his gorgeous micro-symphonies about the presence of God in the world around us and Carruth, while not exactly giving in to Malick’s embrace of Christian concepts, seems to offer a similar world vision, governed not by random luck and chance but by a larger force constantly pulling at strings.
At the center of Upstream Color there is also a constant battle between man and this more powerful force. Are we supposed to think the the Sampler is playing god? If so, why is Carruth implying that we are like pigs in a pen? Is it only because of the biological similarities between men and pigs? Or is he alluding at something more idiomatic? Does he find us repulsive as a race? What would this say about himself? Is he suggesting that love is an addiction? Is he suggesting that love, as a human invention, is something that can be cured?
It’s rare for films nowadays to offer more questions than they do answers. This approach makes Upstream Color an remarkable work of art. With each scene composed and constructed with Kubrickian care and detail, Carruth was also able to find a throbbing heart, and shall we dare say, a soul, within the clinical precision of his editing and cinematography. If Carruth certainly doesn’t have the answers to all his questions, at least we know there is a powerful mind behind them, whose constant search for meaning might be close to the divine.
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