#19: Upstream Color
I have seen Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color twice now, and I still do not feel a bit qualified to write about it, describe it, or to even pretend that I understand it in any certain terms. If it has faults, I do not feel like I deserve to be the one to point them out any more than I would feel qualified to critique the way a person speaks Spanish. But then, even that linguistic metaphor feels all wrong, because I know a little Spanish. But the language of this sometimes moving, sometimes opaque, and always disorienting science fiction drama comes from some place I’ve never heard of. To paraphrase Spring Breakers’ Alien, it’s from a different planet, y’all! And yet, at the end of the day, the issues and themes I can pick out in the film are undeniably human in all the sorrow, ecstasy and confusion that entails. So, as it seems asinine to place a film in one’s top 20 without at least having a vague idea as to what it’s grasping toward, I will make an attempt to describe what takes place in Carruth’s bizarre, haunting little film.
A young woman in her early thirties is leading a modestly successful life with a secure job at an art dealership. She dresses sharply, seems to have a quiet professional confidence about her, and owns a home with good equity. One night, she is drugged at a bar by a narcotics dealer who forces her to ingest a tiny, telepathic worm. As a result, she becomes hypnotized and, for many days, the dealer has control over her actions and her words. He toys with her, forbids her to look at his face, tells her she can only drink tap water, and forces her to memorize entire passages of Thoreau’s Walden to keep her occupied. Finally, using a lie that her mother has been kidnapped, he forces her to liquidate all the equity in her house and sign it over to him to cover the phony ransom. He takes the artwork off of her walls and leaves her to her fate. Soon after, she is telepathically drawn to a pig farmer, secretly in league with the narcotics dealer, who is able to lure the parasite writhing inside her veins into one of his pigs, where it begins the next phase of its life cycle. Sam eventually wakes up in a car on the side of a highway, desperately trying to piece together what happened to her. She is clear of the trauma itself but its emotional aftermath rings in her ears like the remnants of an explosion for the duration of the film. We catch up with her months later, as she tentatively begins a relationship with a disgraced accountant who has undergone a similar trauma, involving the same telepathic parasite. Through the course of the film, they struggle to find solace in one another, frequently misunderstand each other, and fumble toward finding some kind of closure to what they have each suffered. Also, something inherent in the drug causes them to share an otherworldly psychic connection with one another and with the pigs who have been subsequently injected with the drug.
The film is less about piecing together the particulars of its science fiction conceit then it is about exploring the mental states of those who have been affected by it. To that end, Carruth has chosen an editing style that veers between frenetic and poetically serene, sometimes lingering on the characters’ faces or on images of the natural world, but just as often cutting away from the present action to scenes taking place days in the future or maybe the past, even as dialogue from the present fills our ears. More than through editing, however, Upstream Color asserts itself as a vivid and visceral piece of filmmaking because of the dense, exhilarating, unsettling tapestry of ambient sound Carruth has designed for it. Just like Carruth’s debut film, Primer, Upstream Color made its big splash at Sundance, and much of its aesthetic is in keeping with the kind of spare, intimate dramas that the festival is known for. But at the same time, I cannot think of a small indie movie that puts this much effort into creating a riveting, undulating soundscape. The film is an anomaly: a small, relatively low-budget art piece made in one man’s basement that demands to be seen in a theater or at least with a really nice set of speakers behind you.
Upstream Color knows the strange song it wants to sing so well and belts it out so uncompromisingly that it can sometimes lose you in its commitment to the alien. It may even be that its most distinct pleasures are purely sensory, not intellectual. That said, I would have a hard time placing a brilliant sensory work this high on my list if it didn’t at least speak to me in some way. I love plenty of abstract paintings, but I believe that truly great films have to play by a slightly stricter set of rules, even if abstraction is the fuel that makes them go. Where this line exists is hard to say, but last year’s Holy Motors probably came the closest to toeing it without crossing over into unadulterated Dadaism, because its strange rhythms were so cleverly anchored in the themes of performance and of film history. So, the lingering question for this phenomenally weird headtrip of an experience is this: is it about something, anything? I am happy to say that, while much of it can feel opaque, Upstream Color has a relatable and compelling vein of humanity that runs through it. At the center of all the dizzy edits and morphing ambient noise and pig telepathy are two people who have undergone an awful trauma. Carruth and his actress Amy Seimetz do an excellent job of making the scenes depicting that trauma feel as invasive and upsetting as they should. What makes Upstream Color such a very good film is that its disorienting style is in service to something emotionally honest, even if parts of the whole escape me. Like pain itself, Upstream Color is a film that can be hard to fully hold onto. But, at its heart, I saw a film about exploring what trauma feels like, how it impacts relationships, and what it looks like to pick yourself up and slowly piece together a trail that might someday bring you out of the woods again. And, when that day comes, you may suddenly feel thankful that you have a bit of Walden committed to memory.