Nine years ago, Shane Carruth won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Primer, a complex science fiction tale about the ramifications of time travel. Famously filmed on a $7,000 budget, Primer went on to gain a cult following for its incredibly strong and incredibly twisty plot (spoiler: this is as close as you can get to understanding it all).
Upstream Color is only Carruth’s second film, shot on a decidedly larger budget and coming to theaters in April (it debuted this week at Sundance). Think of it as Terrence Malick-meets-Trent Reznor: abstract, brooding, moody, at times graphic. If you’re willing to accept a broader, more indirect interpretation of “storytelling,” what you get is a flawed-but-fascinating exploration into the notion of symbiosis and all its meanings.
"A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism."
The plot details have been kept intentionally vague, and I’d rather not spoil the film beyond the published synopsis: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.” There’s a complicated and contrived plot device designed to affect the two main characters (Amy Seimetz’s Kris and Shane Carruth’s Jeff) in drastic and meaningful ways without them ever acknowledging or even realizing.
The film can be pretty easily broken down into three distinct acts. The first is a very strong — both in impact and explicit content — science fiction thriller that's not for the squeamish. (I say this only as a warning since the rest of the movie isn’t graphic at all.) It’s admittedly important for Upstream Color to establish this bizarre and complicated “hook,” but if you stop to think about the mechanics, it really feels complicated for the sake of being complicated — and it’s a plot device that by design you never get any concrete answers about.
I expected the entire film to continue that way — constantly expecting that squeamish feeling to return — but act two surprised me. The movie takes a significant turn and moves its focus to Kris and Jeff. There’s something raw and dispassionate about their relationship that’s at first jarring. It really doesn’t feel like these two people want to be anywhere near each other; they’re strangers, yet all-too-familiar with the petty issues couples realize many months into “normal” relationships. Eventually you realize that there are significant outside forces influencing everything they do.
What also sets the movie apart is a decided lack of dialogue. Indeed, the last act of the film is entirely devoid of speech (except for a scene early on that’s just quotes from Henry David Thoreau), yet at no point did I feel I was missing something. Instead, Carruth’s own original musical score takes center stage — a moody and unnerving weaving of sounds that keeps the film moving along at a brisk pace. It’s arguably a stronger substitute for conversations that at times throughout the film feel unnecessarily stilted.
The acting is, as it was with Primer, less polished all-around, with Seimetz’s Kris being a notable and powerful standout exception. Also like Primer, there are numerous scenes that won’t make sense until much later in the film. Then there are a handful of scenes that are probably never going to make sense on a literal level — that serve more to push the themes and emotions to a vague-but-rewarding finale.
Think of it as Terrence Malick-meets-Trent Reznor: abstract, brooding, moody, at times graphic
The more I think about the film, the more I realize how applicable those themes can be to the real world. Unknown externalities wreaking havoc on our day-to-day, our short- and long-term aspirations, our identities. I can’t come to terms with every unanswered question or odd, is-it-real-or-an-illusion scene, but even so, the overall takeaway and emotional payoff are well worth the price of admission.
It’s a hard movie to recommend for the average filmgoer — even those who are fans of Primer, which by Carruth’s own admission is a “very different animal.” But that also speaks to how content can be successful outside a traditional model. Primer would never do so well in theaters, and in both cases Carruth has adopted a self-distribution method via pretty much every digital platform in existence in addition to a more limited theatrical run. Even if the fan base isn’t geographically concentrated, the hope is that there are enough fans worldwide to merit success in this new age. And I hope there are.
If you can accept the science fiction set-up without the concrete payoff of “this is what happens and why” (your reaction to the Lost finale might serve as a good litmus test here) Upstream Color is a trippy and enjoyable exploration of connections both direct and indirect.