It’s hard to know what to say about Shane Carruth’s second film, Upstream Color. His first film, Primer, was confusing as well, but that was the confusion of an intricate piece of clockwork; it can be understood in a literal sense given sufficient, patient thought. Upstream Color offers the confusion of vague, nonverbal impressionism that feels no need to explain itself. One thing, though, is clear: Carruth is a cinematic genius, making his own movies on his own terms.
The story seems to focus on Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young professional who is drugged one night at a bar. Her attacker (Thiago Martins) doesn’t use Rohypnol, but the outcome is no less a rape. The drug acts as a hypnotic agent, putting her under the control of a thief who stays at her house while walking her through the process of selling off her assets. At night he sleeps in her bed, keeping her occupied by transcribing Walden onto scraps she then forms into a paper chain. After a week he has cleaned her out; he leaves her to pick up the pieces of her ruined life.
Some time later Kris is lucky to have a job in a printer’s shop. She meets Jeff (Carruth) on a commuter train, and he takes a liking to her. Kris is understandably skittish; her ordeal has left her dependent on mood-stabilizing drugs, which she brandishes at Jeff to convince him up front that she’s crazy and not someone he wants to waste his time on. Jeff is not dissuaded; he confesses a prior divorce, and they strike up their own version of a romance. Kris finds a bubble of comfort and calm in Jeff, and Jeff seems to drift away while watching Kris, absentmindedly twisting straw wrappers into a chain.
It’s not a big surprise that Jeff has undergone a similar experience. He’s lucky to still work as an accountant, off the books now after losing his license over some shady dealing in the past. And Kris and Jeff are bonded not only to each other, but somehow to a pair of pigs on a farm in Vermont, tended by a farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who produces experimental music sampled from found sounds in a mostly natural environment. But what relation the sampler and his pigs have to Kris, Jeff, or any others sharing their experiences is far from entirely clear, even after the film comes to an end.
Upstream Color plays out like a half-remembered dream, which impression is aided by the haunting score composed by Carruth himself alongside his writing, producing, directing, acting, filming, and editing roles. It’s not a puzzle the way Primer was; the pieces are much too fluffy and slippery for that. On the other hand, Carruth’s production feels much tighter this time around. Where the no-budget Primer looked a step above home video — and appropriately so, given its story — Upstream Color moves closer to a more traditional indie-cinema aesthetic.
And it’s obviously not just an abstract, art-film sketch. I may not be able to say what Carruth is trying to say with this film, but it’s clear that there is meaning behind these images. Upstream Color is haunting and personal, and very much the antithesis of big-budget, star-driven film-by-committee. And that’s just how Shane Carruth wants it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.