Shane Carruth is a visionary, perhaps one of the most interesting directors currently in the business of producing wildly original material. Carruth finally returns after his initial effort, Primer, with an experimental science fiction drama that firmly establishes his prowess not only at the writer’s desk and behind the camera, but in front of it as well.
Upstream Color tells the story of two individuals who are victims of psychological manipulation and are subsequently drawn together. As their lives continue to fracture in ways that lie beyond their control, they struggle together to identify the cause and find some resolution. The central element in all of this is an ageless parasitic organism that has a three-stage life cycle. The film is likewise broken up, (roughly)- into three parts that correspond and explore the ideas of one benefitting from another’s detriment. That’s about as succinct as the summary can be, because Color is presented in the one of the most splintered narrative styles I’ve ever seen.
On the subject of writing, it’s strange to expressly say that the film is written well—it is, but when you enter into sequences of twenty minutes or longer where there is no dialogue, you might understand what I mean. More appropriately, the film is simply imagined well. The intrigue in Carruth’s writing comes from hearing a character speak for the first time in a half hour and then realizing that you weren’t bothered by the lack of it at all—Carruth has quickly developed an enviable mastery of unconventional storytelling. Upstream Color pulls most of its weight, plot-wise, in the nuances of its’ sterile atmosphere. This sort of visual sterility seems to be the director’s trademark style and I, for one, can’t get enough of it.
As is becoming the norm with Shane Carruth films, each and every tiny detail is one piece in solving the puzzle, and no piece can be left out of place. When there is dialogue it tends toward the style that we found in Primer—very conversational, no context, no exposition; Carruth isn’t here to hold your hand and explain what’s going on. His characters are interacting amongst themselves and you’re here to observe; nobody is going to spout off backstory or dump information to help the audience. Better still, what dialogue or other ‘pieces’ that look to be awkward or strange will fall into place once more of the story has been revealed. For example, interactions that seemed unnatural on a train an hour ago when the two main characters meet can suddenly gain purpose—moments like that are quite astonishing and rewarding.
With regard to acting, Amy Seimetz, portraying Kris, was phenomenal. The range of emotion present in her character’s psychologically volatile arc must have had a daunting weight, but Seimetz was easily provoking and visceral on screen. Carruth himself had an identical emotional arc to explore, portraying Jeff, though the story only elected to show us the second half of his struggle. Suffice it to say, his performance was likewise quite moving.
The most impressive quality, still, of Upstream Color is that, like with his previous exercise in mind-bending indie cinema, Primer, Carruth acted as producer, director, writer, starring actor, and composed the film’s score. The soundtrack for Color is it’s own appreciable animal, being quite central to the plot many times. While noticeable, it definitely takes a back seat to what’s happening on screen the first few times you watch the film. Upstream Color is a cerebral cross between the grotesque, the dramatic, and the wildly original. If you enjoy a film that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater; if you enjoy a film that can both put you into a drooling coma and still demand your attention, I can’t recommend Upstream Color enough.
Can we please have A Topiary now? Please?