Film review: Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color

Upstream Color
Upstream Color (pictured) director Shane Carruth is perhaps best known for his 2004 debut Primer.

A Pig farmer, a hypnotist, a mad scientist and Henry David Thoreau. All of these may or may not be characters in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and some of them may or may not be the same person.

Nothing in this azure-and-beige meditation on storytelling and modern experience is reliable, maybe least of all its genre description–part horror film, part psycho-drama, part romance, part drug commercial, the point at which the film’s true narrative actually starts is even up for discussion.

This indirectly told story involves Kris–played by Amy Seimetz (The Myth of the American Sleepover; AMC’s The Killing), a seemingly normal office executive who is abducted and brainwashed by a guy using some sort of maggot-derived toxin. He takes everything–money, house, sense of security, self-knowledge, and mental stability. She then meets and marries a guy, played by Carruth, who seems to know a spooky amount about her childhood and who helps her re-construct the parts of her past which have been forgotten, stolen or rinsed away by her trauma.

Fans of the disaggregated narrative styles of early Christopher Nolan or more recent Terrence Malick will sympathize with the efforts of Upstream Color (in fact many of the interior spaces look quite similar in style to Memento). Carruth, though, is less concerned with the unreliability of memory than he seems to be with the unreliability of experience itself and the question of whether there is ever a trusted version of anyone’s auto/biography.

More similar to Malick, and fortunate for movie-goers, is the heavy reliance on sound, especially found sounds to create atmosphere. At some points, the soundtrack even overwhelms dialogue that might help us untangle the twists of the plot. Carruth himself handles the sound design and insists on its centrality to the film.

Likewise, the background theme of nature pervading and influencing everything, sometimes beneficently, sometimes malevolently: Kris memorizing Walden, the orchids which give the film its title, those adorable piglets. Good directors never connect all the dots, a tenet of which Carruth seems well-aware. He, in fact, frequently asks the audience to do much of the narrative work for him by supposing events–involving the development of both the characters and plot–that are not actually shown on screen.

Much like we think of good modern painters introducing a sense of change and time within a two-dimensional space, good modern films such as Upstream Color similarly add a narrative dimension beyond the screen, since different viewers will inevitably have different explanations for events and fill in the narrative blanks in divergent ways.

Because of this, the ending is ambiguous and there is little resolution to any of the character conflicts presented. The pacing of Upstream Color is unpredictable and various, sometimes annoyingly so; its debt to its forebears is perhaps a bit too obvious, but nonetheless, Carruth’s second feature-length film has important things to tell us. Modernity’s biggest fear, the theft of the self, may be something we long ago perpetrated without realizing it. The fragmentary relationships, jobs, and lifestyles in which we willingly and unthinkingly engage have already accomplished most of this crime while we watch, fully awake.

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