Imagine a collaboration between David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick and you’ll have the essence of this downright maddening film, which must nonetheless be counted as one of 2013’s most important releases. It’s writer-director Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2004 indie sensation PRIMER, and the confounding yet undeniably beautiful UPSTREAM COLOR proves he’s not a filmmaker to be taken lightly.
UPSTREAM COLOR, self-distributed by Shane Carruth in Spring 2013, was made after Carruth spent several years attempting to raise money for a more ambitious science fiction project. Unlike the no-budget PRIMER, which cost a reported $7 thousand and starred Carruth and his friends, UPSTREAM COLOR boasts impressive production values, a highly varied and complex narrative, and a seasoned actor in the form of Amy Seimetz, who at the time was the indie film “it” girl.
A young woman named Kris is abducted one night by a thief. The latter subdues Kris by injecting her with worms gleaned from the soil of a strange plant. The worms induce a hypnotic state in Kris, who under the thief’s instructions empties her bank accounts. The thief then leaves Kris alone in her apartment.
Enter the Sampler, an avant-garde musician who lures Kris by blasting rhythmic thumping sounds into the ground outside his mobile medical lab. There the Sampler removes the worms from Kris and injects them into the body of a pig. This causes Kris, who awakens the following day with her memory wiped clean, to become psychically linked with the pig.
It transpires that there exist several more people who’ve been victimized by the thief and “cured” by the Sampler. One such person is Jeff, who upon spotting Kris on a subway feels an immediate connection with her—and the feeling is mutual. This, of course, is due to the fact that Kris and Jeff’s respective pigs are attracted to one another. This leads to some personality-scrambling on the parts of Kris and Jeff, who find they share several memories, and also a lot of angst when the pigs are manhandled by the Sampler. Further psychic transference occurs when Kris’ pig is impregnated, leading to Kris believing she’s pregnant.
As for the Sampler, he shoves the piglets birthed by Kris’ pig into a bag which he callously throws into a river. Thus the river’s water becomes suffused with the parasite that set the whole thing in motion, which causes oddly colored flowers to bloom along the river’s banks. The flowers are collected by hikers who sell them to a nursery patronized by the thief, and the cycle begins again.
That cycle is about to be broken, however. Kris and Jeff discover what has been happening and contact other sampled people, all of whom gather to confront the Sampler at his pig farm…
As enigmatic as this film is, its narrative is actually quite straightforward. What Shane Carruth has done is left out the explanations and back story, which aside from requiring an unusual amount of work on the part of the viewer leaves a lot of unanswerable questions (such as: what is the origin of the hypnotic parasite, and how is it that the thief and the Sampler are the only people who know about it?). Nonetheless, as Carruth has repeatedly made clear in interviews, UPSTREAM COLOR is not an every-interpretation-is-valid account, and a lot of what has been written about it thus far is, frankly, incorrect (the protagonists are not “automatons” and the pig farm around which the narrative revolves is far from “imaginary”).
Yet the extraordinarily dense and layered visuals, impressionistic editing, painstaking sound design and darkly ambient score make for an immersive viewing experience that compels even at its most inconclusive. There are also moments of genuinely skin-crawling Cronenbergian horror that outdo most modern horror films in sheer ugliness.
As for the acting, Shane Carruth doesn’t embarrass himself too badly as Jeff, and wisely devotes the majority of screen time to the more skilled Amy Seimetz. As Kris, Seimetz carries the film with considerable brio, conjuring an unforgettable depiction of fear, apprehension and doomed romance.
Director/Screenplay/Cinematography: Shane Carruth
Producers: Shane Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair
Editing: Shane Carruth, David Lowery
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Marthins, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke, Andreon Watson, Ashton Miramontes, Myles McGee, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King