(Dir: Shane Carruth, 2013)
It's been nine years but the wait is finally over. Shane Carruth appeared out of nowhere to win the Grand Jury Prize at 2004's Sundance Film Festival for his mind-bending micro budget time travel movie Primer and then promptly vanished, as if he'd stepped into one of those machines hidden in a storage unit in some bland unidentifiable city. Primer's realist feel and well thought-out take on time travel has proven to be one of the most intriguing tales about the concept, requiring multiple viewings to even begin to make sense of what's happening. Then Carruth disappeared down a self-described rabbit hole as he tried to thrash out the intriguing sounding A Topiary, which unfortunately will never likely see the light of day. But true to form late last year it was announced out of nowhere that his second feature, Upstream Color, would shortly be upon us. Anticipation inevitably ran high.
Upstream Color is a film of shifting tone as it presents a certain cycle of existence. Starting out as a mysterious thriller with shades of early Cronenberg (think Shivers), Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped and infected with a parasite that leaves her compelled to do as instructed. After the ordeal her life is in turmoil but she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who's persistence and seeming kindred spiritedness leads to love, as the film shifts into gentler more romantic gears, but things never seem balanced as certain parts of their world start to make less and less sense. And what of the mysterious isolated pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig), who spends his time making albums of field recordings?
Like Primer, Upstream Color is a film that sits with you and plays with your brain. It's not something to be passively consumed and simply understood, with the underpinning layers and ideas crying out for repeated viewing and dissection. Where to even start? The film plays with the whole idea of existence alongside power and control. The characters are frequently compelled to act and behave in certain ways for reasons completely unbeknownst to them. There's a mysterious reason why they're being pulled like this that serves as a handy metaphor for all existence and all our experiences. Can we ever be sure why we do the things we do? There's a suggestion that a higher power might be at work, but not so much in the sense of a deity, but someone with a "playground" who is pushing and controlling life and everyone is but slave to this. Thus Kris and Jeff's meeting seems pre-determined. The recurrence of Henry David Thoreau's 1854 book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods implies that an observation of modern society and how we all fit together is at play here.
Then there's how the couple deal with a metaphorical loss and existential terror that profoundly affects them, pushing them together with a fear that their own existence is at threat. In "reality" it's a continuation of this cycle of life, but the event pushes them perhaps further than intended, awakening something. Intriguingly a merging of identities appears to take place as past experience and childhood's blur into one between the couple, with each claiming a remembered experience is theirs. Inevitably this leads to anger and confusion from the apparent memory loss - a result of parasitic invasion perhaps, but representative of the homogonisation of society and that no matter what we think, we're not really individual. Even so, transcendence is still always a possibility.
Visually I was instantly struck by a similarity to the work of Terrence Malick. The camera is fluid and there are many many close-ups in the film that linger on the minor details such as seemingly insignificant items or parts of the body, but this helps with creating a collage of mood and life, as if we're experiencing the film rather than being caught in a crystal clear linear narrative. As such dialogue is less prevalent which serves to enhance the "experience" aspect. It's a very striking and bold film, but still retains hints of Primer so it's clear it's same director at work. The score greatly enhances the film with moments of ethereal beauty or a droning hum that provides weight. Carruth composed an initial score whilst writing the film, which underlines its importance.
Upstream Color proves Carruth's status as one of the most intriguing auteur's in indie filmmaking and considering he wrote, directed, starred in, edited, scored, produced and acted as cinematographer, this is a film that is truly his vision and voice. Acting that feels down-played and a look and feel that recreates the essence of individual experience help accentuate the plethora of ideas deep within its pool, which phase from the abstract to less subtle. Like the most satisfying drink of water imaginable, rewatching will be difficult to resist as it holds much to uncover. And if it takes Carruth another nine years for his thrid film to appear, it'll be worth the wait.