Upstream Color, the eagerly awaited second film by indie director Shane Carruth, is extremely difficult to describe. It’s partially a mind-blowing sci-fi film along the lines of his first movie, Primer, which won the 2004 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It’s also kind of a romance. But if I were forced to label it, I’d call it a horror movie, not because it meets any of the usual expectations of that genre, but precisely because it does something that horror movies almost never do: It inspires deep horror.
Shane Carruth—the writer, director, co-producer, music composer and star of Upstream Color—is an interesting character. A graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, he majored in math because of an epiphany about calculus and storytelling. Before turning his attentions to filmmaking, he worked as a developer of flight-simulation software. Carruth’s Primer, which was made on a shockingly small budget, took the indie-film world by storm. Devotees are still trying to puzzle out, with graphs and timelines, the exact meaning of this story of two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine in their garage.
Carruth is self-releasing Upstream Color. It premiered at Sundance, where it won various awards, and has played at a few select theaters around the country. But the main way that most of us will access Upstream Color is by downloading it from his site, buying the DVD or renting it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu or Google Play. I’m cautiously enthusiastic about this fresh approach to connecting an out-of-the-way film to an audience (Terence Malick just tried a similar approach with To the Wonder). Still, I hope that Upstream Color is one of the first movies shown at the new FilmScene location, because its cinematography has a bizarre visual beauty, both warm and chilling, that I hanker to see on the big screen.
The story begins with the discovery of a worm that, when ingested, puts disparate organisms in sync. Next thing we know, an inscrutable character, referred to in the credits as the Thief, stun-guns Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) and forces her to swallow the worm. She enters into a zombie-like condition where she’s susceptible to whatever he commands. Over the next several days, the Thief makes her do things like copy out Thoreau’s Walden page by page, treat a glass of water as her greatest desire and sign over her money and possessions to him. All the while the mysterious worms visibly burrows in her flesh.
Finally, Kris wakes from her zombie state to find her life in shambles. Unable to remember what happened, she tries with raw desperation to keep herself together. Eventually, she meets Jeff (played by Carruth himself), and they fall in love, or something like love, and we slowly discover that he has a similar blank trauma in his past.
Woven into the lovers’ plot (though it’s only so useful to speak of a plot in this dream-like movie) are images of piglets that have been injected with the same worms forced into Kris and Jeff. In fact, a whole drove of infected pigs, all with human counterparts, is kept by a character referred to in the credits as the Sampler. Because of the mysterious properties of the worm, the fates of the pigs mirror that of the humans. Thus, the Kris-piglet and Jeff-piglet fall in love and suffer the same struggles and humiliations as Kris and Jeff.
The pig part of the movie sounds in my description more farfetched than it seems on screen. In fact, the pig scenes are shot—mirabile dictu—with more compassion than the people scenes, which have a creepily scientific feel to them. Moreover, the pigs are what give Upstream Color its deep, genuine horror.
It’s unsettling enough to think that our lives are governed by what pigs do, or even that what we do directly influences the fate of pigs. But what Carruth does is more horrifying. We’re unsure who’s governing whom, or if either animal has any genuine freedom at all. Worse yet, we don’t know why this strange experiment is happening, even though the movie stirs in us a strong desire to figure it all out. But unlike Primer, which inspired intricately graphed exegeses, Upstream Color leaves us feeling that our understanding will forever approach but never touch its central horror, like an asymptote infinitely chasing its line.
The great movie that evokes a similar religious horror is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with its creepy mirroring of lives within lives. Steven Soderbergh has called Carruth “the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron.” At times Upstream Color is even suggestive of Kafka. But comparisons, which are odious to begin with, are almost useless in the case of Carruth. His films are unique: low budget, exactingly crafted, eccentric, heady, soulful, almost nerdy and, in the case of his new movie, genuinely nightmarish.
Ed. Note: Upstream Color is now available to stream on Netflix.
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College and blogs about music with his son at billyanddad.wordpress.com.