by Ken B.
A corrupted but honorable merge of The Tree of Life and the collective work of David Lynch would lead to an aesthetic that could almost adequately describe the one presented Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. Much like Malick’s existentialism rush, it digs into insurmountable philosophical musings, and the Lynch gene is its bizarre imagery and multilayered sound design – one of the best I’ve ever heard. It’s a curious thinkpiece, original in such an overwhelming way that the fact that I even dared compare it to anything else would suggest a minimal understanding of the movie.
Customarily, a review spends the two paragraphs after the lead describing the first act or so of the story, in order to show the reader if he or she would like it, regardless of what the reviewer thought. I would do that here, if I could understand the plot. There is one, there is something driving the characters, but it’s never explicitly revealed what it is – never revealing the details behind something is definitely the driving force behind the movie, written by, directed by, edited by, shot by, composed by, co-produced by, and starring Carruth.
There’s a hypnotic nature to the elements at hand; an idiosyncrasy, from a pig farmer (Andrew Sensening) also dabbling in medical operations and sound editing like some sort of DJ-Foley mix, a surrealist first act where events start at a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) being kidnapped and experiencing events ranging from copying passages of Walden to waking up worms crawling under her skin. There is some connection, although it isn’t altogether certain what it is, between that and a following narrative, where against the backdrop of the relationship between Kris and a man named Jeff (Carruth) as they piece together that they have both been victims of whatever happened.
I am at a loss to “describe” Upstream Color, as it is, as I have mentioned, a movie beyond basic description. Typically, writing a review or summarizing an opinion is not a particularly difficult task, but when a movie like this comes along, each step of the writing process becomes more and more self-aware. I can start by saying that I do indeed recommend Upstream Color, but this comes with a whole house of caveats for the on the fence viewer. Those who don’t wish to read this guide can skip down these next three points:
- First off, you’ll need an appreciation (or at least a tolerance) of the stereotypical textbook definition of “art house”. As I reiterate for the thousandth time, this is an exceptionally weird movie. I did not know Carruth’s character’s name was Jeff until the end credits. Recurring themes (pigs, matching shots in both urban and outdoors settings, characters doing just plain odd things) will be presented to you, and it is your job to selectively and personally interpret them.
- Next, you’ll need the recognition that you are going to have to (and will want to, hopefully) rewatch this movie. Multiple times. The review you see here is not a document of my final thoughts on Upstream Color. Not by a mile. This might not even be the last article I specifically devote to it. This screams out as a film that requires further time dedicated to it in order to give the viewer the experiences it requests. I imagine this was an elementary foundation on which Carruth developed this project.
- Lastly, before you watch Upstream Color, know that unless you have a very solid cinematic constitution, you will most likely have moments, no matter how fleeting, of undeniable frustration with this film’s 96 minutes. It’s open-ended and transcendent style can really work for some, but will break others. Tread carefully.
Okay, that’s done. I’m not sure whether I’m at a point where I can say much more. What I do know for sure is that Upstream Color is one of the most intriguing projects I’ve ever seen, never anything less than entirely absorbing. The acting, even when no words are being said, is compelling. The sound is nearly telling of what is important when: Towards the start, where characters are being manipulated, show powerlessness by making dialogue tinny and sometimes near-inaudible, focusing more on nature and related sounds. As the film progresses, and characters and interactions become vital, sound levels become more normal. The visuals, often washed out and in unassuming colors, elevates style, brimming with mystery and elusive concepts.
Shane Carruth’s second film has displayed the impression that a grasp on an idea is not exclusively the backdrop of appreciating a piece of work. The three star rating here is mainly ceremonial and done by self-set necessity, showing a crude symbol of my personal opinion (frustrating, but very, very, very immersive). Never before have I been so quick to recommend a movie I have had such a minimal grasp on.