This movie stays with you for days after watching it, as only the most interesting stories do. Writer/director/actor/composer Shane Carruth garnered much attention with his first feature Primer. His much anticipated second film, Upstream Color, is no different. At the Sundance film festival tweets by critics debating its ultimate meaning trended higher than Sundance itself. Frequently dubbed a mind-bender or head-scratcher, it’s as frustratingly open-ended as it is hypnotically beautiful.
At face value, Upstream Color is the story of a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who gets implanted with a worm containing a mysterious parasitic blue organism by a stranger. As the organism wreaks havoc on her brain and body, the stranger uses mind control to have her hand over her life savings, then disappears. Her body ravaged by the now numerous worms, she is taken by another stranger who performs a bizarre medical procedure which seems to heal her, then leaves her unconscious in her car close to home.
Confused and broken, with little memory of what was done to her, Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth himself) and the two are drawn into a romance and profound connection. As it becomes clear Jeff is a victim of the same type of crime, it remains unclear how much of their connection might be because of the organism, or in spite of it. Though the first third of the movie felt at times like it was dragging, this second portion is emotionally rich, with an intimate portrait of the couple. Seimetz plays Kris perfectly, as a woman undone but still reluctantly able to love, and to try to start over. Carruth has the subtlety and grace to not overpower his leading lady nor the story, and aptly portrays her steadfastly loving, but equally lost, partner.
As more alarming clues surface about the past incidents, more layers are woven into the mysterious story of the Kris, Jeff, the organism, and various related characters whose backstories we don’t know. The strong focus on this narrative creates an expectation that we will be given all the answers in time. The film does keep our attention, through this waiting for a “reveal”, by the simple virtue of being wonderfully made. Carruth states in interviews that the story had to stem from the natural world. The look of the film seems to echo the pure beauty of nature. Scenes are infused with a pure white glow, and with rivers, forests, and orchids frequently re-appearing in the imagery.
The unique look of the film is met equally with Carruth’s own soundtrack of subtle synth-work and original rhythmic sounds. Carruth’s well-placed snippets of music and strange sound effects compliment the sense of growing mystery, and the surreal quality of what’s happening to the characters. The film’s score also ties in directly to one of the characters – a man who uses natural objects, like rocks tumbling down a water tunnel wall, to record sounds which seem somehow connected to the odd rhythms Kris and Jeff hear in their heads. While a small part of this engaging story is eventually explained, it’s not nearly enough to leave most viewers satisfied. If you crave an interesting, thought-provoking mystery, and have no problem with a lot of your questions left unanswered, this film may work for you as is. However most viewers will feel that two hours of their time merits much more (though not all) to be revealed.
In interviews, Carruth explains that the story is not intended to be literal. It’s intended to represent the general concept of losing one’s identity, and not being able to pinpoint a cause for that loss. Unfortunately, the fact that the film is a metaphor rather than a literal story is never made clear in the film. Had there been a conversation between the characters even just hinting at that fact (For example “It doesn’t matter why this happened to us, but it happened.”), Upstream Color could have gone from 3.5 stars to 4. If my questions had been at least 60% answered with a super-clever, super-interesting grand reveal, then much mystery could have still been retained, and this Rubik’s cube of a film could have even been a 5.
Upstream Color plays at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto from Friday, April 12 until Thursday, April 18.
Cast: Amy Weimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Top image: A scene from Upstream Color. Courtesy ERBP.