Part drama, and part science fiction, Upstream Color is a difficult film to describe and do it justice.
We start our journey with an orchid. Upon its leaves a blue powder blooms. This powder helps feed grubs at the root of the plant. A man takes these grubs and places them inside pill casings, and forces Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young woman he bumps into at a club, to inhale one. Kris then becomes his puppet, fulfilling all the instructions of the strange man, including copying out the whole of “Walden” and emptying out her bank account. When he leaves, Kris finds she has no memory of what has happened to her, but is aware of something squirming beneath her skin. Having tried to cut it out herself she finds herself drawn to some low, rumbling tones which she discovers emanate from a field in the middle of nowhere. Here a second man performs an operation on her and removes the grubs from under her skin, implanting them in a pig. Kris soon finds herself back home and unable to remember anything that has happened to her. Following her ordeal Kris meets a man on a train, Jeff (Shane Carruth) who finds himself completely drawn to her. The pair embark on a relationship, and find they have a great deal in common, and their tale unfolds, taking in pig farms and the circle of life itself.
What follows over the next 90 minutes is an abstract, feverish hallucination, taking in the body horror of David Cronenburg with the surrealism of David Lynch and the dreamy visuals of Harmony Korine. Upstream Color is challenging, weird and as far from mainstream cinema as you can get.
Shane Carruth is the writer, director and star of the piece. He also produced it, edited it, acted as cinematographer and even wrote the music. It is safe to say that this is entirely the product of Carruth’s mind and as a result is undiluted and uncompromising. Carruth came to prominence in 2004 for his mind-bending tale of time-travel Primer, which he shot on a budget of just $7000. The result was clever, unique and utterly mind-bending take on a staple of cinema. Like it’s predecessor, Upstream Color is complicated, difficult and dense. However, it is also extremely beautiful and beautifully extreme.
With barely any dialogue, and washed out tones to every frame, at times Upstream Color feels more like a melancholy feature-length music video. I mean that as a compliment, as it is very easy to find yourself swept up in the tone and the visuals and forget that you are watching a film. Carruth has taken the traditional feature-length format and tinkered with it until it is almost unrecognisable. Indeed, the mind-boggling narrative is almost secondary to the overall tone and theme of the film. It would be easy to get caught up dissecting the meta elements that hint at an all-encompassing will to the natural world- life will find a way- but then you’d miss the heart of the film, which is about two damaged people finding comfort and direction in life. Half the joy of Upstream Color is pondering what it all might mean, and being able to unpick the woozy images that streamed by you for 90 bewildering minutes.
If you enjoy a film with a linear narrative and familiar subject matter shot in an accessible way with pulsating soundtrack, then Upstream Color is not the film for you. As it was I enjoyed the trippy, hallucinatory experience, although I may never eat pork again.