At one point, Kris, the heroine of the hypnotic new film Upstream Color, is on a subway with her new sort of, but not quite yet boyfriend Jeff when he starts making up stories about other riders. Thinking at one point he’s overreaching, Kris accuses him of being a bit too clever. It’s interesting that this description was delivered to a character played by the writer/director of the film, Shane Carruth, because there are times when the movie does become a bit too clever, perhaps, with a certain vagueness that may not always work in the film’s favor. I think it’s safe to say that Upstream Color is a movie driven more by images than clear narrative, with all the disadvantages and advantages that approach has.
Yet in spite of that, in spite of the disadvantages, Upstream Color is fascinating, riveting, what one would call a real page turner, if it was on a page. It’s one of the finest films of the year so far. It may be driven more by images, but those images are compelling and draw one into the movie’s odd little world with as dream like a quality as the various characters find themselves in at times.
The basic story revolves around a drug found in worms that when ingested (yes, the worm itself), makes the one who took it go into a sort of trance like state and do whatever they are told. Kris becomes such a victim and without her even knowing it, her victimizer has her remove every cent from her bank account; has her take out loans on her house; and has her reveal her secret hiding place of gold coins. And doing all this while she copies out pages from Henry David Thereau’s Walden (don’t worry, it may seem like a non sequitur-and in many ways it is; but at the same time, it’s an important part of the plot). This happens over the course of several days. When she comes out of it, she’s broke as well as fired because she missed work. And because she has no idea what happened, there’s nothing she can do and no one she can turn to. And that’s not all the horror she has gone and goes through.
But the drug also gives those who take it a sort of psychic ability so that when Kris runs into Jeff on a subway, they find themselves oddly drawn to each other. It’s obvious to anyone in the audience that Jeff was also conned in the same way. So the suspense boils down to, when and how will they realize that the weird things happening to them will lead them to what turned them into the people they are now? The plot is tricky, quirky, always surprising; it’s safe to say that you will rarely be able to predict what will happen next with scenes that at times are fascinatingly all over the place.
From a technical stand point, there’s little to argue with here. The acting is strong. Amy Seimetz, who plays Kris with a certain brittle strength, and Carruth, with a pouty James Dean look, are constantly puzzled and frustrated by their lives. They try to act normally, but nothing is normal anymore. And it’s not long before one is emotionally invested in their situation. They say little, but their eyes and expressions say much, and their courtship is an odd one—they seem constantly angry at each other, but seem unable to break up. They play their drama out against the constantly overcast and effective cinematography (by Carruth) and a moody, powerful score (also by Carruth—he also co-edited; I’m not sure I’d want to spend Christmas with him; he probably wouldn’t even let me put tinsel on the tree).
But there is also that narrative vagueness with scenes that are at times hard to follow and the constant appearance of a sound engineer and pig farmer (hey, it could happen) played by Andrew Sensenig (whose character actorly face is worth its weight in the gold coins in Kris’s hiding place) who keeps showing up for some reason. And I’m not convinced the ending really resolves things as satisfying as it might. In fact, the final scenes have something of the feeling of a David Lynch movie like Inland Empire where it comes across more as if the whole thing got away from the filmmaker and he couldn’t quite figure out how to bring all the earlier brilliance together.
In the end, I do think that Upstream Color has its issues. It comes dangerously close to falling into the category of such recent films as Stoker and Spring Breakers, where the narrative is either badly done or deemed unimportant, subservient to images for images’ sake, a questionable aesthetic choice. So I do believe Upstream Color is hampered by its distrust of a more solid and clear narrative (unlike Carruth’s earlier film, the compelling time travel movie Primer). At the same time, for all its issues, it’s still a far more fascinating film than most movies that are well made and are satisfactorily put together (like Lincoln and Argo and the recently released The Company You Keep).
A must see.