Upstream Color: Sundance Review

Upstream Color

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Shane Carruth)

A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins.

A dramatically obscure, technically brilliant experiment in speculative fiction from Shane Carruth.

The long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth combines exceptional technique with a deliberately obscure narrative and meaning.

PARK CITY – The long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth, whose microbudgeted time-travel sci-fier Primer won the 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and a subsequent cult following, pursues a similar but cinematically more complex line of combining exceptional technique with a deliberately obscure narrative and meaning. With much information purposely withheld and no dialogue during the film’s final third, this densely exploratory work will cue both elation for its many beauties and deep-furrowed brows about what the hell is going on. In other words, this is a highbrow cult item par excellence, the audience for which Carruth evidently feels he knows how to reach himself, as he plans to personally distribute it both in cinemas, beginning April 5, and online. The Berlin Panorama and New Directors/New Films lie ahead next on the festival circuit.

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Although Carruth very much remains a filmmaking one-man band -- he wrote, directed, co-produced, co-edited (with Ain’t These Bodies Saints director David Lowery), composed the music for and stars -- Upstream Color actually is dominated by lead actress Amy Seimetz, an indie-world veteran who directed last year’s Sun Don’t Shine. With a grave intelligence and beauty that from certain angles remind of Juliette Binoche, she commands the screen in the gorgeous but mystifying opening stretch during which her professional woman character of Kris is abducted, then subjected to a disturbing procedure by which small white maggots and perhaps various bodily fluids are exchanged between her and a pig under the supervision of an unidentified man.

Natural and earthy elements dominate as motifs: dirt, plants, roots, water that becomes the only substance she is allowed to ingest after the operation—“Each drink is better than the last,” she is informed while, not understanding what is happening, she is divested of her job, bank account and personality. Upon seeing some form moving under her skin, she becomes hysterical, stabbing herself repeatedly to rid herself of whatever now lives in her body.

But trying to explain what seems to be going on far too simplistically reduces the film to roughly explicable plot points, something Carruth ruthlessly banishes as a general principle. The experience of watching the film, especially this first section, is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves in a way that’s especially mesmerizing during this first section.

Whatever has been done to Kris, she is now something of a blank, left to her own devices to start up a life again. Has the medical/life-theft project been abandoned? Has she joined a silent army of infected ones who one day will be roused from their stupor for a sinister purpose? No one can say, and it certainly won’t be Carruth, who now enters the film as a man named Jeff who also has left one life behind and now is pursuing another.

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Upstream Color flattens out considerably at this point, as it temporary veers in the direction of romance in which two people who have presumably been genetically re-engineered attempt to redefine themselves and see what kind of connection they can make with someone else and what that might mean, if anything. They both remember and don’t remember things from the past and sometimes argue over whose memory is whose. Still  not knowing what has happened to them, they become paranoid, arming themselves and retreating to a bathroom, until a final half-hour flurry of intercutting, involving a reconnection between human and pig, seems to bring the characters a form of inchoate release.

Ultimately, Carruth’s is a cinema of impressions and technique, not overt meaning. Trained academically as a mathematician and engineer, he’s into structures, tearing them down and building them up again, exploring theories of modes of expression rather than working out whatever it is that is to be expressed, drawing lines on a board (or onscreen) that might or might not connect, constructing nonverbal means of communication, a language that still lacks for something clear to say.

All this will seem profound to some and mean nothing to those who never got algebra. As far as audiences are concerned, Upstream Colors certainly is something to see if you’re into brilliant technique, expressive editing, oblique storytelling, obscuritanist speculative fiction or discovering a significant new actress. Tastes running to anything even slightly more conventional should stick with what they know.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
Director/screenwriter/music/director of photography: Shane Carruth
Producers: Shane Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair
Executive producers: Scott Douglass, Brent Gooden
Production designer: Thomas Walker
Editors: David Lowery, Shane Carruth
No rating, 96 minutes