I consider Shane Carruth’s Primer among the best films of I saw in 2004. I caught it in an almost empty theater during a free preview, “hot” off its Grand Jury win at Sundance. The film took a brilliant look at time travel as something existing on a quantum level of alternate realities. It posited a twisted Pandora’s box of paradox that left many obsessed with unraveling the drama on the film’s website (that forum has since disappeared).
Nearly 10 years later and the director/actor/writer/musical composer, a true auteur if there ever was one in cinema, returns with a film featuring all of his talents once again. It arrives with even more hype as the myth of his achievement with Primer has grown along with the length of years of Carruth’s absence from filmmaking. Dare I say that Upstream Color falters in comparison with his debut. Whereas Primer featured a basis that spoke to the former software engineer-cum-filmmaker’s grasp of a subject matter more clumsily pulled off by mainstream or even sci-fi directors, the storyline of Upstream Color tackles a manipulation of altered states on a cerebral level that may have something to do with an alternate reality.
Usually, I more than other reviewers will champion notions of alternate realities, including dream states and psychological conditions, presented in film by harnessing the power of cinema through editing, story and other aspects of the medium. This makes me all the more sensitive to movies that falter in this regard. Disembodied loose ends should never be allowed to drift so far apart that gaps feel as vast as they do in this film. They feel like red herrings, but I have faith this meticulous filmmaker would never resort to such cheap gimmicks. Somewhere in his mind, everything that happens in the film is connected. I just wish the gaps were not painted with such cavernous brush strokes.
I have read nothing about what this movie may or may not be about, save for one gushing, but delightfully confused article, in “Entertainment Weekly” and obtuse statements of praise disembodied from argument. Based on what I saw in the movie, part of its thrill may be just sitting there and going with its flow and figuring it out as one flows with the movie. In fact, a teaser poster for the film only featured the obscure statement: “You can force your story’s shape but the color will always bloom upstream.” Considering I have not even taken a peek at the film’s press materials for synopsis, it’s fair that I try a boilerplate summary, based on what I saw during a preview screening last week:
The film follows Kris (Amy Seimetz) a young, over-worked woman who is kidnapped, drugged and hypnotized into emptying her bank account by a fellow the film introduces as a quiet gardener. This gardener (Thiago Martins), referred to in the film’s end credits as “Thief” seems concerned with the grub worms in his potted orchids more than the plants themselves. In fact, it is soon revealed he is using the surviving grub worms as the narcotic that allows him to hijack Kris’ body. After a fever-dream like sequence where she is rescued from her state by a man referred to in the credits as “The Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig) via a skin graft from a pig, she seems to regain her self-awareness. Then come the side effects, which seem to draw Kris to another seemingly lost soul and former drone of the thief’s scheme, Jeff (Carruth playing his character cool and distant, not too unlike Adrian Brody would). A pig farm comes into play that is inter-cut with the drawing together of Kris and Jeff that suggest a sort of mystical synchronicity that may join the people with the swine. Cause and effect reveals these connections, and I could go further, but it might reveal too many of the film’s surprises.
There is much mystery to be had in Upstream Color, and it’s made artfully, including a scene that— fair warning— may upset those who hate seeing harm done to animals on screen. Carruth is also behind the score, which is available as a vinyl record, on the film’s website, linked above. It features lots of droning humming ambient synthesized drones and busy, soft repetitive tinkling piano lines, reflecting the contemplative mood the film asks of the audience. The tone, in this case seems similar to Primer.
Clearly Carruth enjoys playing with perceptions. Early in the film he presents a brief red herring when he introduces Kris at work, composing a computer-generated commercial. It may be a signpost on how to take this film, which seems very aware of existing in its own universe that may have similarities to our current world, but also many decidedly different uses of things like orchids and pigs. This could very well be taking place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but that may just be too convenient. The trick lies in the cause and effects that never feel tight enough for one to feel connected to these characters. But then, that’s what the critics of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey said about that film (For more read: How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 1 of 4). The jury’s still out on this film, as far as this writer’s concerned. I don’t feel the film deserves to be written off but nor does it necessarily deserve glowing praise, as there may be too much serendipity at play, especially in the panache department on behalf of the filmmaker. But if you enjoyed Primer on some level, you may still enjoy this. If this film is about alternate plains of perception, I still think eXistenZ did it better, and then there’s always the bubblegum version for neophytes: the Matrix.
Upstream Color runs 96 minutes and is unrated (expect violence to man and piggies alike, however). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 24, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).