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Directed by Shane Carruth
Screenplay by Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
How long is Upstream Color? 96 minutes.
What is Upstream Color rated? Unrated.
“Color” Is Not Black and White:
“Primer’s” Shane Carruth Becomes Even More Experimental
The problem with writing this review of Upstream Color is that I’ve only seen it once. This isn’t to say that the movie will make complete sense upon subsequent viewings, but it definitely requires multiple watches (plus access to Wikipedia, fan theories, and frame-by-frame analysis) in order to begin to appreciate what writer-director-actor-composer-fundraiser-distributor Shane Carruth accomplished with his second feature about the “subjective experience of life,” relationships, and several other intangibles.
Carruth first hit the scene in 2004 with the time traveling cult classic Primer, in which he also wore multiple hats both in front of and behind the camera. And if you haven’t seen that one, I highly recommend it. It’s a great example of how the lowest-of-low budgets can inspire an intelligent, thought-provoking, funny, and clever movie. Unfortunately, it took him nearly a decade (plus work on Looper) to obtain funding for his follow-up.
With Upstream Color, Carruth does not try to replicate Primer. Although he’s still clearly working with a low budget, though higher than his previous film, this becomes a benefit in his hands rather than a pitfall. He utilizes his resources very effectively, and you never wonder how it would be improved with greater funds. While Primer primarily played off narrative confusion and wibbly wobbly timey wimey paradoxes, this second feature moves further into the more experimental realm, which makes it even less mass friendly. There is a storyline certainly, but it’s more about connecting with the experience.
Through this film, Shane Carruth repositions himself as a cinematic artist using all the tools available to him to produce a unique, affecting, and memorable film that hits the audience on a visceral level. This might be disappointing to those expecting the wit of Primer, which this film is sorely lacking, but is fascinating for those interested in seeing the evolution of a filmmaker and proof that Carruth is not just a one-trick pony.
Transitioning into this more impressionistic territory clearly begs comparison to Solaris‘ Andrey Tarkovskiy; Terrence Malick, especially with The Tree of Life; and their ilk. Remarkably, Carruth handles this undertaking, and the certain knowledge that he will be likened to some of the most iconic directors of all time, with the maturity and intelligence of a more veteran filmmaker. His use of soundscapes, imagery, and minor set details to connect scenes from every section of Upstream Color can only be fully recognized with repeat viewings when you know what to look or listen for. But even on an initial screening, you can sense the confidence and meaning within. To be sure, while Upstream Color doesn’t work as well as many of its predecessors, the film nevertheless shows a successful willingness and ability to enter that challenging arena.
Additionally, Upstream Color is a thematically rich movie. My last review, The Place Beyond the Pines, was also the second film of a writer-director, that being Derek Cianfrance. In that instance, the utter obviousness of the themes (Family! Fathers and sons! The past!) hindered my enjoyment of the film. Carruth, alternatively, leaves what the movie is actually about, both in a narrative and philosophical sense, under a layer of film, which leads to a more intellectually satisfying experience and one begging discussion afterward.
Although I’ve been focusing on the ethereal aspects of the film, it does have a plot. However, it took me this long to get to it because, while I hesitate to say it’s of secondary importance, Upstream Color is sure to disappoint viewers who go into it, at least initially, looking for a straightforward story. Kris (Amy Seimetz, who will be next appearing in The Killing season 3), finds herself subject to an experiment led by a man (Thiago Martins) with remarkable powers of hypnotism who implants an ever-growing worm into her. Having given all she owns to this thief, she finds herself down on her luck when she runs into disgraced moneyman Jeff (Shane Carruth), who does under-the-table bookkeeping for a hotel chain. As their lives and memories intertwine, details about their past experiences become clear. There is also a pig farm and a scientist/pig farmer.
I never said this film wasn’t challenging. It is, but in the ways it should be.