Upstream Color | Movie review
The sophomore feature from the director of Primer offers few explanations.
By one way of looking at it, every filmmaker is a frustrated scientist. Shane Carruth, a fiercely independent director (and dreamer of weird dreams), fits this company perfectly, but doesn’t seem to be having much fun. Primer, his 2004 debut, turned time travel into not a liberated adventure but a tedious endeavor pursued in oil-stained garages. Vexing and impossible to follow, the movie nonetheless beguiled a brainy Sundance jury and even won Carruth a $20,000 science prize.
Upstream Color, the director’s second movie after a Malick-like period of suggestive silence, again cribs from textbooks of Carruth’s own devising—but thankfully, there’s a bit more emotion this time. The film starts off in an ominous mood, as a burgundy liquid is extracted from grubworms in a suburban lab. Soon, a Bluetooth-earpieced businesswoman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is attacked outside a club and forcibly made to ingest the juice. Scarily, she becomes a hypnotized mindslave to a mysterious home invader, who has Kris empty her bank account and construct art projects on her kitchen table. She drinks copious amounts of water and does what she’s told.
At this point, Carruth shifts to another parallel of secret experimentation, adding confusion on top of confusion. No one is going to explain any of this for you—and the slightly snobby implication of Upstream Color is that explanations are for suckers. Carruth, serving as his own short-focus cinematographer and brooding synth composer, is chasing after a free-form thriller, narrative be damned. The effort is majestically single-minded, even if the overall vibe tips dangerously toward preciousness. Kris and her lover emerge as ecowarriors obsessed with Walden and orchids; the whole movie might be a distended riff on Thoreau’s reclamation of the soul or, per Dr. Strangelove’s Jack Ripper, a cautionary tale about “precious bodily fluids.” Leave the inner cynic at home; it’ll help.