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DVD Review – Upstream Color

3 min read

Upstream Color is the sophomore film effort by Shane Carruth, who rose to prominence briefly after his first film, the ultra-low-budget Primer, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.  With a somewhat technical storyline about time travel, Primer was a critical success and established former software engineer Carruth as a promising director with a very unique visual style. As he did with Primer, Carruth wrote, directed, starred-in, scored, and edited Upstream Color.

Upstream ColorUpstream Color starts out with the story of Kris, a young woman who was drugged with a strange worm.  The drug has hypnotic effects, giving her capture complete powers of will and suggestion over her. He takes her back to her home where he forces her to liquidate all of her assets (including mortgaging her home), and leaves her life a total wreck after losing her home and her job (where she can’t adequately explain her absence). A total mess, she rides the trains where she meets up with Jeff (Carruth), and the two form a relationship based on a mysterious attraction to one another and the sense that they have both suffered the same experience. Interwoven into this story we see the life of a mysterious man who implants pigs with the same worms from these victims, and they become part of a strange cycle where the pigs breed, their offspring are used to fertilize flowers, which in turn produce the worms, and presumable start the cycle all over again. We learn that Kris and Jeff are not alone, but many people have had this experience.  Understanding how the two storylines are related is sometimes challenging, and Carruth doesn’t make it easy on you by spelling it out in black and white.

Upstream Color is an allegorical film, and some will find it difficult to follow. Carruth has created a fascinating style, which I found very appealing. His visual compositions are quite unique and interesting, shooting from surprising or unexpected angles, or capturing light in interesting ways. On top of this he layers a simple score, comprised mainly of extended, single notes and combines these in shifting visual sequences where there is usually no dialogue. The effect is that the film commands your attention to a level that most other films do not. However, at several points in the film it can seem pointless, and some people could get bored without dialogue or feel there is no story progression.  Carruth does eventually tie the two stories together and it all makes sense…or at least a little bit of sense.

With a unique exploration of human connection and a striking artistic style, Upstream Color is an interesting experience. Unfortunately, the story is a little too obtuse at times and will leave many people baffled. But with Carruth wearing so many hats (writer, director, editor, actor, music), it achieves a level of cohesion rarely seen in films today and stands out as another innovative achievement.