Alright, let me just start off with a disclaimer: this film is…different. If you haven’t seen Shane Carruth’s only other film Primer (trailer below) you might want to start with his debut released in 2004, not because it will be any help in explaining Upstream or its weirdness, but because at least you’ll come to realize that Carruth doesn’t want you to fully understand him. Or at least, he wants you to dig, and dig, and dig, and dig, until you come up with something that you think might make sense. Or maybe his goal is to come across as a mad scientist director, I don’t really know. I will say though that I thoroughly enjoy his filmmaking style, his storytelling ability (however disjointed it seems at times), and his bravery in doing whatever he wants. One thing you should know before I go on, this guy writes, directs, acts, composes the music, and is the cinematographer for his own films. That’s what I call creative control! If nothing else, at least respect him for that.
Another disclaimer, this particular recommendation is going to be purposely shorter than most. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, we are dealing with a film that at times is pretty abstract and therefore can only be explained by my own interpretation that I do not want to taint your viewing experience, and secondly, because I don’t know what the hell is going on and don’t want to try to explain it and look like a moron. I can tell you that Carruth seems very interested in conveying images that ask, rather than tell. If you are in the mood for a film that gives you everything in a neat little package, this is not the film for you today. Asking questions about the origins of love, its purpose, and its significance in our lives, questioning the role of technology and its influence on the evolution of our emotions, these and many other ideas are at play. What we have here is what I imagine a science fiction film would look like if Terrence Malick ever decided to do one (not a completely original thought, comparisons between Carruth and Malick have been made before, and are rather obvious). Anywho, Upstream Color is a love story with pigs.
Amy Seimetz plays Kris, a young woman who is abducted by a mysterious man listed in the credits as “The Thief” who forces her to ingest a parasite of some sort. This parasite messes her up in all sorts of ways, the most obvious of which is making her very easy to manipulate. Kris becomes a sort of robot for this weirdo doing whatever he suggests, including giving him all her money. Then she is kidnapped once again (rough time for this girl) by this other creep, credited as The Sampler, who (I think) transfers her consciousness into the mind of a piglet. Yep, you read that right. That consciousness then finds its way into an orchid that blooms a beautiful blue. Jeff (played by Carruth) is also the victim of kidnapping and manipulation and he and Kris are linked, experiencing the aftermath of the trauma together.
Weird, right? But I promise you the film is a rewarding watch. Beautiful, and I mean beautiful visuals take this film to what I believe is the next level. Slow, methodical, filmmaking that allows the images and music to tell the story is refreshing change from blatant exposition through dialogue that for me creates shallow characters. Kris and Jeff are not shallow characters. We feel for them and feel their desperation to take back control of their own lives through intimate closeups and their impressively composed and controlled performances.
So, full disclosure then – you will be trying something different when you sit down to watch this film. And while that might make you a bit nervous, may I remind you that it could be the formulaic nature of Hollywood films that is giving you reservations, not the fact that a film might actually be “too weird”. I literally wondered aloud what the hell was going on while watching this film – and I loved this aspect most of all. So take a chance on this one, please. There are some websites including interviews with Carruth and some of the actors that claim to provide ‘answers’ to some of the questions raised in the film but not only are the answer inconclusive, they aren’t really answers at all. Don’t bother with them unless you’re suffering greatly from confusion – not knowing is part of life too, as is continuing to ask.
And in case you’re wondering where on Earth one gets their hands on such a ‘unique’ film, this baby is on Netflix, so search it up (or you can borrow my copy). And also, call me when you’re done and we can chat about it. Maybe you can decode it for me.
Art House Gem
Sci-Fi for Days
Upstream Color Trailer: