Shane Carruth, best known for writing and directing 2004’s cult classic Primer, returned to Sundance this past year with his sophomore film, Upstream Color. The film stars Carruth as Jeff, and Amy Seimetz (The Killing, You’re Next) as Kris. What’s this movie all about? Well, there’s nature. And, a pig farm. There are worms. There are maggots. There’s a sound guy recording sounds onto vinyl. Kris may have had her identity stolen, but, more importantly, she’s infected by something. Someone hooks her up to a pig, and she finds herself mentally connected to the pig farm. Kris meets Jeff and a quasi-love story evolves. There’s paranoia. Some mind-melding, but the rules of the world are never consistent or really established. This film is about images, not story or meaning.
Upstream Color could have succeeded, perhaps, as a series of short stories, but as a feature film, it is painfully disjointed. In fact, the first and most promising plotline in which a ring of scam artists uses exotic, mind-altering drugs to swindle victims into willingly draining their bank accounts is swiftly abandoned for a protracted melodrama between two of the victims as they dare to love again. Jeff and Kris, as characters, are fairly flat and monotonous, which makes their story together also flat and monotonous.
The imagery leads to several dead-end concepts, instead of weaving together and circling back to previous plot points, which could have created an over-arching narrative. Instead, other labored, yet random, imagery hints at quite simple themes that aren’t exactly novel (i.e.: the circle of life). I was hoping for more narrative, just enough to be able to have some thoughtful discourse on what I had just witnessed. It was not there. Yet, somehow, this film has been given a lot of leeway by reviewers. As Arrested Development’s Maeby Fünke once said, “No! Deep is good! People are going to say, ‘What the hell just happened?’ And, I better say I like it, because nobody wants to seem stupid!”
Even the Variety review is incredibly generous, going so far as to say the book Walden, a frequent reference in the movie, provides a clue as to what Carruth is up to: “In its intense levels of visual-aural stimulation, the film is at once transcendent and meditative, and in some ways a call for the sort of inner detox Thoreau prescribed. And, since exalted literary works seem to be on the interpretive agenda, the transference of illness to a herd of pigs calls to mind nothing so much as the gospel accounts of Jesus casting out Legion by the Sea of Galilee.” Wow. That IS deep.
The sad truth though, when asked at the Sundance Q&A what the significance was for the use of Walden, Carruth basically said he had no real reason. He thought that it’d be annoying to have to copy it over and over again (an action that happens in the film). I mean, such a boring book should be a good torture device, right? His responses to other questions were quite similar. And, since Carruth wrote, directed, scored, starred in, and edited this film, its burden rests on him. If this movie exists simply to confuse, then the audience is the punchline. Sadly, that puts me in the camp of sci-fi fans who are frustrated and saddened by the supposed lack of thought put into this movie.
Upstream Color has some disturbing imagery (not for the squeamish). It intrigued me, confused me, disappointed me, and then bored me. If you think you’d like to see what this movie is all about, sure, check it out. Knock yourself out. It’s available on iTunes. I had to sit through it, why shouldn’t you?
For its cinematography, performance by Amy Seimetz, and occasionally interesting score and imagery:
Two Drowned Piglets out of Five