Upstream Color

Year: 2013
Production Co: erbp
Director: Shane Carruth
Producer: Shane Carruth
Writer: Shane Carruth
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth

Sigh... indie directors. They either get sucked up into the fold of Hollywood, dazzled by the promise of money and resources and transformed into just another cog in the mainstream machine, or they go infinitely weirder because that was the aesthetic that interested them about their last film.

After waiting so long for the second film from one of the most exciting new indie directors of the last ten years, what a disappointment Shane Carruth's Upstream Color is.

I hate to sum up my whole response into what's essentially another 'what the fuck was that all about?' complaint, but whatever was going on in the story, I was (another common complaint) either too stupid to get it or Carruth didn't intend for it to be got. I'd be really curious to know how many people who loved Primer were completely alienated by this film.

Like the work of David Lynch at his most crack-headed, transcendental meditation-iest, the bare bones of a story is in there somewhere, but like Inherent Vice, the mood and the movement might be far more important to Carruth than any plot.

Kris (Amy Seimetz) is an everyday girl until she falls victim to a kidnapper who drugs her with a concoction he's synthesized out of some kind of hallucinogenic grub that gives him incredible powers of hypnotism and suggestion over people.

He lives in her house and proceeds to empty her bank accounts and relieve her of all her valuables, all the while playing with her by making her ravenously hungry, awake for days at a time transcribing a novel and other pointless pursuits.

The guy eventually leaves after snapping Amy out of it and she tries to get on with her life until she finds her accounts empty. From there the story (to the extent that there is one) really drifts. She meets a man (Carruth) with whom she shares an attraction but who has his own secrets about why he lives in hotels and gets suspicious glances from co-workers.

There's something else about a guy who keeps pigs. He shows up early in the film where Kris is hooked up to a pig apparently getting a blood transfusion from it, then later there's a bizarre sequence where he appears at the shoulders of every character in the film, none of them realising he's there.

Is it just a bunch of flashbacks, showing you the moment where he looks in on all these people, or is he jumping through time and space (all the while never speaking) like some supernatural being?

Almost every scene, character and turn in the narrative is like that, and while I'm quite proud of my ability to enjoy a movie that's not spoon fed to me (and lord knows I wanted to love this after Primer), I just had no idea what the hell was going on.

Primer was a puzzle, and if you sketched it out on a whiteboard with flowcharts it would all come together – that was a quality you could instinctively feel as you watched it, which is what made it so great even if you couldn't understand it on first (or tenth) viewing. Upstream Color leaves you with no such impression, that you'd have no idea what to connect to what.

On the upside, Carruth is as assured a composer of images as he was in his first film. There's an ethereal, dreamlike quality that plays with focus and pacing that reminds you a lot of Terrence Malick.

I don't know if I ever want to see Carruth given $150m to do a superhero film (though that'd be something to see), but I wish he'd kept going down the path Primer was pointing towards – confusing, layered and thought provoking, but with a definite story waiting to be teased out by your own sense of wanting to find it.

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