When does film narrative stretch to the breaking point?
See more of Rick’s reviews at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
Nine years ago Shane Carruth made his directorial debut with the micro-budgeted “Primer” (2004), the wordiest, most original yet technically restrained sci-fi flick of the last decade. It is also the most complicated time-travel movie of all time – a distinction likely to persist into the foreseeable future. (See Ryan Levin’s “Primer” timeline HERE.)
“Primer” earned the young director both the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
In the ensuing nine years, Carruth went all-in on “A Topiary,” a film that failed to get financial traction. He later referred to the project as “the thing I basically wasted my whole life on.”
See trailer for “Upstream Color” HERE.
The wait for his eagerly anticipated followup is finally over. “Upstream Color” is a Shane Carruth film in just about every possible sense of the word: He wrote the story and script, directed the actors (himself included), handled the camera, co-edited the footage, composed the music and oversaw release and marketing strategies.
The verdict? “Upstream Color” spouts like a geyser from the same subterranean well of the unconscious shared by filmmakers like Terrence Malikck, David Lynch and David Cronenberg. It’s hard to imagine a more disorienting and (take your pick) – perilously, defiantly, cynically, negligently – labyrinthine film. If you expect to discern a completely coherent plot in a single viewing, you will walk away disappointed.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) appears to be a normal person holding down a decent job as a special-effects editor (inside joke: she’s shown working on footage from Carruth’s “A Topiary”).
Carruth (the writer) introduces a dangerously psychoactive agent made from an extract of simmered maggots. Inexplicably – a word that will come in handy when trying to explain the plot – the creepy-crawly juice falls into the hands of a small-time criminal, who forces it down Kris’s throat. Something in the mysterious chemistry of the maggot potion dissolves her will and sense of self, allowing the bad guy to drain her bank account.
Enter Jeff (Carruth the actor), who may have done a few shots of the stuff himself.
“Upstream Color” has something to do with the self – intrinsic identity vs. extrinsic influences beyond conscious physicality. “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” comes to mind. Researchers Nicholas Christakis (Medical Sociology professor at Harvard Medical School) and James Fowler (Medical Genetics and Poly Sci professor at UC San Diego) have said their research “…provides some novel sorts of evidence regarding social contagion in longitudinally followed networks… (W)e are working to develop new methods for identifying causal effects using social network data.”
At its best, “Upstream Color” conjures a sense of those intangible influences and connections that affect identity – and the feeling of isolation and existential dread when they suddenly disappear.
Carruth (as the co-editor and composer) and David Lowery use music, match cuts and sound effects to effectively convey the state of dissolved egos struggling to recoalesce. Sundance awarded sound crew members Johnny Marshall and Pete Horner the well-deserved U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Sound Design.
See playdates and locations for “Upstream Color” HERE.
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