Movie Review: Upstream Color
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
If you were partial to one-time Dallas filmmaker/actor/writer/composer Shane Carruth’s previous mind-scrambler, the 2004 cult time travel movie “Primer,” your reaction to his second feature, “Upstream Color” will likely be the same: You’ll come to the end of this even knottier trip and say, “I need to see that again, possibly right now.”
It’s actually hard to know where to start talking about “Upstream Color.” It’s not an abstract movie, but it is highly subjective and impressionistic. There is a definite plot, or rather several, but its disinterest in conventional narrative is near total.
Which is to say that “Upstream Color” makes it glaringly apparent just how spoon-fed most mainstream (or even independent) movies are. In fact, the movie is a terrific counter to the idea that television has somehow become the more artistically adventurous medium — no show on network or cable or the almighty HBO would attempt what “Upstream Color” treats as just part of the “story.”
First, some surfaces. “Upstream Color” is an exercise in body horror, a sci-fi headtrip, a crime film, a romance. It’s told in fragments and shards, some in linear order, most not (I think). Kudos to one-time Austin-resident David Lowery and his stunning editing — it’s hard to see the Academy forking over any award to a movie this reticular, but man, does he deserve at least a nod.
Near the start, we see glimpses of our two leads, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth). Both are running, she in a race of some sort, he away from something. A man cultivates some flowers that have a blue powder on them. After removing some maggot-looking critters from the soil, we see some young teens ingest the creatures, then start a highly ritualized dance that almost looks like combat, as if they are mirroring each other’s movements.
The man cultivating the flowers then follows Kris to a club, knocking her out and forcing one of the maggots into her system, which makes her very susceptible to suggestion. He robs her, she is traumatized and in the aftermath, her career lies in ruins. Things start to get loopy after Jeff and Kris meet on a train. He is aggressive, she is more inert than receptive (his aggression may not be intentional; Carruth’s inherent emotional coolness was perfect for “Primer” but it works less well here.)
They begin a relationship marked by paranoia and coincidence. Their identities and memories begin to slide into one another. A man who may or may not exist records nature sounds and tends to pigs; he also happens to be the fellow who performs some disturbing surgery on Kris and the pigs. Some pigs are drowned. We learn more about Kris and Jeff and what brought them together and how they are linked. There is some obsessive-compulsive swimming in a pool. Thoreau’s “Walden” becomes a plot device, as does the possibility of genetic memory. The parts fit together without ever really fitting together. It’s an incredibly dense 96 minutes.
Like “Primer,” nothing feels randomly placed or without meaning. There is a very sure filmmaker at work here. “My head is made of the same material as the sun” is a mighty creepy line, and managing to get that idea across with a minimum of effects is even more impressive.
Carruth is distributing the movie himself, both in theaters and on-demand. The extent that “Upstream Color” likely rewards both ways of watching a movie is both really impressive and bodes well for the future of Carruth’s career and filmmaking in general. Between the minimal dialogue, the barrage of quick cuts and a deceptive lushness, “Upstream Color” is suffused with a dream-logic that is much harder to sustain than it seems. I haven’t seen the movie on the big screen, only a DVD at home, but I suspect that, in a theater, it will overwhelm and that dream-state will become even more potent. But, like “Primer,” “Upstream Color” will benefit from repeated viewings, from the ability to rewind, review, rethink. Dive in.