Upstream Color (2013)
Directed by Shane Carruth.
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Myles McGee, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke.
2013 96 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of an R for disturbing images and mature thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 1, 2013.
It has been a long wait for writer-director-actor-editor-composer-cinematographer-add-your-own-hyphenate Shane Carruth's sophomore feature following 2004's $7,000-budgeted mind-melting time-travel puzzler "Primer
," but here, at last, it is. "Upstream Color" is a bit more straightforward and a little less difficult to comprehend, but it is no surprise they are from the same man-a filmmaker whose apparent hyper-intelligence and compellingly abstract ways of viewing the world ensure an original, if somehow emotionally distant, experience. Less concerned with the characters in his movies than their metaphoric symbolism, Carruth treats them as pawns in a grander master plan. That he is able to achieve this on shoestring budgets that refuse to skimp on their necessary scope is highly admirable. If he were to ever find a way to get his audience to feel as well as he gets them to think, he might be truly onto something extraordinary.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is an office professional whose life suddenly takes a dramatic turn when she is kidnapped by a mysterious thief (Thiago Martins) who drugs her with a grub worm hidden inside a pill capsule. She is fed a number of mind games, blackmailed into signing over her home equity when she's told her mother is in immediate danger, and then radically dropped back off into her old life. It is one she has difficulty adjusting to now, finding herself pursued by and oddly connected to a client named Jeff (Shane Carruth). He senses their bond, and for good reason; it turns out he was a previous victim of the same perpetrator. As their memories, too, become entangledthey can't seem to remember what happened to whomtheir destinies little by little lead them to a farm in the country where life has recently ended and organically begun anew.
"Upstream Color" is about nothing less than the circuitous nature of living and dying and the organic wonders of rebirth. Hefty topics, but so it goes with a filmmaker of Shane Carruth's wild stripes. His human love story barely takes offdialogue between the two is stripped-down and scarce, and there are moments when Kris shoots Jeff a look less of amorous desire than annoyance bordering upon disdainbut a parallel one between pigs more affectingly carries home the point that we're all connected, sometimes in ways so intrinsic it's near-impossible to fully comprehend. Sharing thematic similarities to 2011's critically uneven "The Tree of Life
," the film is less labored but more antiseptic, not as concerned with hazy religious iconography as it is with underlying biology and science. It has less to lose because it doesn't have the means to aim as high and fail in as many ways. Carruth's handling of such idiosyncratic material is admirable, but there is a distance that remains between the viewer and his subjects. It's a hurdle the director will need to jump if he hopes to ever break out beyond artsy curiosity seekers.