Upstream Color is the long-awaited sophomore effort from writer/director Shane Carruth, who blew a lot of mind’s with 2004’s low-budget time travel flick Primer. Caruth’s freshman effort was an brilliant piece of science fiction and moviemaking, one which requires a very complicated graph to fully comprehend. A long eight years later, Carruth finally comes back to us with a movie that is superficially “simpler,” though no less confusing and far more difficult to succinctly summarize. However, behind the simplicity and confusion, and hidden beneath the substantially larger budget, is a beautiful poem, a blend of science fiction and romantic thriller. But even more fundamentally, Upstream Color is an idea, a theme and an experience.
Upstream Color opens with a sequence of shots that introduce us to a thief with a mysterious methodology, using biology and chemistry to take control of his victims. We then follow him as he ruins the life of Kris (Amy Seimetz), completely unbeknownst to her, and begin to see that there’s more going on here than just thievery. What that “more” is, is something Kris tries to figure out after “coming to” and seeing the wreckage done to her life. As she tries to pick up the pieces, she meets and begins to develop (an understandingly stilted) relationship with Jeff (Carruth). Their meeting is random and yet they appear to have an intimate connection, which frequently dovetails with intercut images of something which I don’t want to get into as it’s better to watch things unfold for yourself.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden plays a metaphoric role in the film, and the following critique of the book (from Wikipedia) can equally be applicable to Caruth’s Upstream Color, specifically in the way he uses allegory and metaphor, and how he shifts from scientific to transcendental points of view.
“Walden is a difficult book to read for three reasons: First, it was written by a gifted writer who uses surgically precise language, extended, allegorical metaphors, long and complex paragraphs and sentences, and vivid, detailed, and insightful descriptions. Thoreau does not hesitate to use metaphors, allusions, understatement, hyperbole, personification, irony, satire, metonymy, synecdoche, and oxymorons, and he can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence. Second, its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense. Ironically, this logic is based on what most people say they believe. Thoreau, recognizing this, fills Walden with sarcasm, paradoxes, and double entendres. He likes to tease, challenge, and even fool his readers. And third, quite often any words would be inadequate at expressing many of Thoreau’s non-verbal insights into truth. Thoreau must use non-literal language to express these notions, and the reader must reach out to understand.”
The key to understanding Upstream Color, I think, isn’t to know about the content of Walden but its themes and styles. Walden explores (among many other things) the notion of focusing on the simplicity of life, eschewing our modern world for pastoral life and utopian villages. In a literal sense, that’s kind of where Upstream Color is going, although it’s really about making connections with nature as well as with each other. And thus the film is also exploring the themes of solitary existence, the co-existence of Man and nature, and of seeking happiness and fulfillment, themes similarly explored by Thoreau. Of course, Thoreau did not include mind-altering science to connect nature to humanity.
Upstream Color is a remarkably beautiful and technically proficient film. The slow and deliberate direction, cinematography, sound and scoring quietly highlight, rather than distract from, Carruth’s complex script. Carruth, as a director, is sharp and smart. As an actor, he is rawer when it comes to performance, although it serves his character well here. Seimetz, on the other hand, is purely excellent.
Many filmmakers try to make “art” of their movies, to bring an air of poetry and allegory beyond the simple A-to-B-to-C storyline. Most attempts fail, resulting in grating pretension. Others succeed, resulting in beautiful pretension. Upstream Color is more articulate in its themes, and far more coherent in its plot, but like the work of Terrence Malick, that pretension often throws people off. It’s certainly not for everyone. However, if you’re willing to go with a film and let it take you where it wants in the way that it wants, even if that way is sometimes bizarre and disjointed, while you may not understand it all, you’ll find yourself with an enriching and beautiful ride.