Directed by Shane Carruth
A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the lifecycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.
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★★★★ review by Hentai Cop on Letterboxd
Shane Carruth's previous film, Primer, is a very clinical and cold film, yet nine years later he returns with Upstream Color, a film grounded in emotion and warmth. This is a film with a love story at its core, and like Primer, the science fiction elements are secondary to the exploration of the character's relationship. Since this film hasn't reached a wide release yet, I will spend the first paragraph addressing why one should see it, without spoilers, and then I will continue with my analysis of the film.
Upstream Color is a film that expects a lot from its audience, and the form of the film is definitely challenging. Yet Carruth grounds his film in the characters, and the romance between them is very well-developed; it's one of the best on-screen relationships I've seen in recent memory. The world of the film is also beautiful, and the shot composition is absolutely gorgeous, with lots of shots of natural beauty and some abstract compositions that enhance the emotions of the characters. The film is cast in brilliant soft lighting and is filmed in a palate of earth tones; it looks incredibly serene and creates an atmosphere of comfort (and sometimes horror).The science fiction concept in the film is one done before, but Carruth makes it infinitely more interesting in the way that he restricts information through the narrative, which flows between scenes without finality. Without spoiling the film, all I can say about Upstream Color is that it is something different, and more importantly, it is incredibly well-constructed and I have found no flaws to stack against it. I highly recommend checking it out.
A lot of people found the plot of Primer to be unfair towards the audience because of its difficult narrative, but at least all of the pieces in Primer were on the film's narrative surface. Upstream Color is a lot more abstract in its ideas, and although all of the information to understand the film is presented, a lot of that information is outside of the base narrative and rests in the movie's themes and Carruth's approach to form. The film presents a sort of formal free association, in which each scene exists alone, and doesn't immediately inform the content of the next scene. The relationship between scenes is one of emotional tone, which is heavily influenced by Carruth's score, which commonly acts as the bridge between disparate scenes. The narrative of the film does not move temporally or spatially, but instead the scenes are connected through the repetitious dialogue and match cuts that associate different scenes through similar imagery. The film's narrative is definitely abstract in its presentation, which makes an interpretation of the film difficult, as the film is incredibly dense with symbols and ideas.
The film basically has two narratives occurring at once: the exterior narrative and the interior narrative. The exterior narrative concerns three groups of people: The Thief, The Sampler, and the Orchid Mother/Daughter. They form a cycle that revolves around a blue orchid with mind-control properties; the Orchid Mother/Daughter find the orchid and sell it to the Thief, who uses the orchid's mind-control properties to rob a victim of everything they have, then the Sampler removes the mind-control element from the victim, and through unpredictable methods, eventually returns that element to nature so that more orchids can grow. [Note: I am aware that the orchid itself doesn't possess the mind-control properties and that it is a separate organism that influences the orchids, but I'm attempting to streamline the review so that my interpretation doesn't become too confusing.] The cycle of the mind-control organism is the science fiction element of the film that Carruth refuses to make entirely clear, and he leaves a lot of the information off-screen as a means of distancing this narrative from the interior narrative, and ultimately makes the importance of the science fiction concept in this narrative secondary to the romance.
The interior narrative concerns the relationship between Kris and Jeff, two people that meet long after they were victims in the aforementioned cycle. The film concerns them attempting to connect with each other despite having lost everything because of the dark moment in their past (in which they were robbed by The Thief). Their relationship grows organically in the film, and Carruth and Seimetz give excellent performances that are incredibly subtle in their brilliance. The romance never becomes melodrama, and it builds gradually throughout the film, with realistic fights and concerns that shake up the relationship. The mind-control element in the character's past frequently comes up in their everyday lives, with Kris falling back into a stupor and repeating actions forced upon her by The Thief.
This mind-control element, the dark part of their past that frequently prevents them from connecting with the world, operates as an extended metaphor for any tragic event that may have happened to the characters in the past. One scene alludes to Kris possibly having had cancer a year before, which is currently preventing her from having a baby (remember this detail), and Kris has entirely forgotten the illness, making it unknown whether the mind-control element played a role. Also, Jeff says that he lost everything because of a drug habit (which he believes explains his deficiency of memory due to mind-control), and this past darkness currently affects his job security and financial sustainability. The mind-control element becomes a wonderful metaphor for past misfortune, and the interior narrative concerns these two characters working past this guilt and melancholy towards a stable relationship.
The genius of Carruth's film, and the reason that it will leave a lasting impression on every viewer, is the way in which these two narratives interact. The Sampler, the man who removes the mind-control element from the victims, transfers the mind-control element (in the form of a parasitic organism) from the victim to a pig. He then allows the pig to live on his farm among a bunch of other pigs, pigs that also underwent the same process. These are not just ordinary pigs though, these animals carry a piece of the victim's essence, and the life of the pig becomes a microcosm for the life of the original host. For example, Kris and Jeff meet in the interior narrative and the pig versions of them meet in the exterior narrative. The Sampler is definitely the most tragic character in the story, as he is isolated and alone on his farm (he never meets the other participants in the cycle) except for the contact he has with the pigs, and he vicariously makes relationships by watching the pigs. By being with the pigs, The Sampler is able to spy on the lives of the past victims and he becomes a passive omniscient observer in their stories.
The Sampler also goes about making sure that the microcosm of the pigs properly represents the human characters, and when the pig version of Kris becomes pregnant and has a litter, the human Kris can not possibly reciprocate; The Sampler is forced to take the pig's children and drown them in the river [on a side note, these piglets decompose into the mind-control element and cause for the orchids to grow, however, this process likely doesn't happen every time, so I wonder through which other methods the orchids form]. As the piglets are taken from pig versions of Kris and Jeff, it is revealed that the events in the microcosm also affect the characters, as the exterior narrative becomes horribly apocalyptic as Jeff and Kris hide in a bathtub like a couple of survivalists. They don't know why they are so terrified, but in fact they are responding to events occurring in the microcosm.
The end of the film is definitely one that will leave many viewers scratching their heads, so here I provide my interpretation. Kris and Jeff discover that they are continuing to be influenced by the mind-control element, and are becoming victim to repeating the behaviours forced upon them by The Thief. The two of them are able to trace the feelings and sounds they associate with the mind-control to several sources, and Kris eventually traces the source back to The Sampler. I feel as though The Sampler is an incredibly tragic character, since he is not directly responsible for destroying the victims' lives, and was the one that released them from the mind-control element. The only way he profited from the exchange (besides probably some money from The Thief for his services) was through his relationship with the pigs that let him be a viewer over the victims' lives. His punishment is death at the hands of Kris, who holds him responsible for her misfortune, and The Thief escapes any form of punishment. Once The Sampler is dead, Kris and Jeff connect with all of the other victims, and together they take over the farm and care for the pigs. The audience is left with a beautiful image, as Kris gets to hug and care for piglets produced by the surrogate mother of her pig version, an incredibly potent and emotional ending that perfectly closes the story.
I was incredibly satisfied with the way this film ended, but many will ask, “Why?” I believe that I have an answer for what the overall idea of the film is, so even if you disagree, at least give me some credit for trying. The Sampler is God. He is an omniscient and omnipresent being that controls over a world of beings lower than him (the pigs) and has control over the lives of real people through the microcosm he controls. The Sampler spends his time alone, caring for the beings which he created (he basically gave the pigs a soul) and is incredibly passive in his actions; he is an unbiased observer, changing the events in the victims' lives because of a responsibility, rather than being malicious (he doesn't kill the piglets because he is evil, but because it has to happen).
The Thief is the Devil. Maybe not The Devil, but at least the opposite of the Sampler, a being of evil that balances out the passivity of God. The Thief operates solely for personal gain, robbing the victim's of their livelihood and leaving them with deeply rooted anxieties and issues. He is not just a criminal that robs financial assets, but he also removes a piece of the victim's identity [on a side note, there is a subplot in which Kris and Jeff argue about which childhood memories belong to who. Perhaps The Thief steals those memories and replaces them with his own, thus the victims' shared past]. The Thief is only able to work because of actions originally performed by The Sampler, and The Sampler is only able to perform his role because of The Thief, so together they have a symbiotic relationship that could not exist without both the passive and selfish actions.
[Note: I'm ignoring the role of the Orchid Mother/Daughter, whom deliver the orchids between The Sampler and The Thief. My interpretation is that they are another simple and passive force that works for the benefit of the cycle, but they are such a small part of the film that it is hard to get an idea of their motivation.]
The end of the film is thus an act of transcendence: Kris murders her God. When Kris kills The Sampler, she becomes the only force of control over her own life, and this act of transcendence is shared by all of the other victims that take over the farm at the end of the film. They are now in full control of the microcosm of their lives, and can allow the pig versions of themselves to do anything without having to worry about the predestination that drove The Sampler's passive care. Kris is able to have children, in a way (by caring for her pig version's piglets), because she is no longer trapped by the constraints of the exterior narrative, as both narratives have merged into a single construct. The newly found control operates as an act of healing, and if the mind-control was an extended metaphor for cancer or a drug addiction (both of which take control over the victim's life), then the ending is the victim's rehabilitation, the point at which they are finally able to take back control over their lives.
Upstream Color is an incredible film that is nearly perfect in its execution. The film captivating and complex without becoming obnoxiously abstract, and it is shot with a calm beauty that is enhanced by incredible sound design. This film is a technical and narrative masterpiece and supports Carruth as being one of the most singular auteurs in modern film making. Everything about this film is wonderful and the complex form and narrative definitely lend to further viewing (not unlike Primer). Carruth is in a class of his own, and Upstream Color is proof of his genius.
★★★★ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd
Shane Carruth’s belated follow-up to his befuddling debut, Primer, proves no less puzzling yet for markedly different reasons. Primer was intricately plotted yet, given the time and inclination, its multiple narratives could be untangled. Upstream Color is far more abstract and elusive and I suspect clarity will never be forthcoming no matter how many times you attempt to decipher its mysteries. It is also a far more emotionally engaging story compared to the sterile coldness of his time travel darling.
Upstream Color is a woozy and elegiac tale of love, loss and connections. Its story is not easily explained, not without reducing its plot to New Age twaddle, nor easily understood. It is dense, thematically perplexing and hauntingly hallucinatory - after finishing the film I emerged in a disembodied daze similar to the drug-induced funk experienced by the two lead characters.
Kris (an excellent Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth) are inexplicably drawn to each other after being the victims of a strange and invasive theft. Stripped of money, memories and everything they hold dear by a mind-controlling grub, they become two lost souls who find companionship and purpose through a surprising symbiotic relationship. My synopsis is deliberately vague as it is best to experience the heady charms of the film with as little prior knowledge as possible.
For all its science-fiction trappings and head-scratching diversions, this is a film about a simple relationship. The central protagonists find themselves in a situation neither can remember nor comprehend yet there is a connection and thread that mysteriously brings them together. The relationship is intense, confusing and raw as their broken memories become shared echoes. Carruth brilliantly captures this sense of confusion and intangibility via the film’s elliptical editing, thrumming soundscape and stream of consciousness plotting.
This is a thematically rich story, overflowing with suggestive imagery and allegorical meaning. Yet for all its provocative richness it almost defies interpretation. It explores the cycles of life, teases theological explanations and may even be creative catharsis for the director himself, but these theories are often tenuous and a definitive reading is likely to be impossible. Thankfully a conclusive interpretation is also redundant as this is not a story that relies on a revelation or clear closure, even if the film does deliver one by the end. Answers are not important; it is the emotional journey the film takes you on that is key.
Critics have been quick to compare this work to Terrence Malick, yet whilst it shares his oblique editing, hushed voices and ethereal cinematography it never feels indebted to the great auteurs poetic style. What is particularly refreshing is there is no sense of compromise in the finished work. Having written, directed, produced, starred, shot, edited and scored the film himself, Carruth has delivered his singular vision unsullied by outside interference. There is a ‘wholeness’ to the film that is absent from so many larger productions and this lone and unwavering voice demands attention.
It is a film likely to bemuse as many people as it will beguile. Its opaque narrative may frustrate whilst its mannered and meticulous style will no doubt be accused of being pretentious and hollow yet I suspect Carruth expects this criticism. It is a film that will either speak to you or it won’t, with no safe middle ground in-between. For me, I was transfixed by its dreamy lyricism, grounded surrealism and elusive power. In the end it managed to worm its way into my subconscious like a mind-altering grub and I welcomed its intrusion.
★★★★½ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
"I have to apologize... I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun."
one of the only love stories in recent memory that actually *does* make sense. certain films are often (and lazily) described as the kind of thing that you need to see twice, but it truly is sadistically cruel that the end of this film doesn’t immediately loop around to the beginning… not to plug holes, but to heal tissue.
a true headphone movie, if ever there was such a thing, it’s an analog romance about collective memory and fundamental togetherness, elliptically edited to the extreme, but done so with such organic forward motion that - at its best - it feels like cinema 2.0 by need rather then design. it eventually wormed its way into my heart something fierce, even though i’m not entirely sold on all of the details quite yet (the nearly wordless final movements make narrative sense but feel emotionally diffuse).
★★★★★ review by ButtNugget on Letterboxd
Shane Carruth’s alluring Upstream Color is Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the art house crowd, with hogs replacing pods and identity crisis substituting for McCarthyism. That may be an awfully crude comparison but it’s the overall gist I got as I watched this beguiling, beautiful film. One thing’s for sure, the plot’s mind-control science fiction aspect plays only second fiddle to the transcendent yet universal overarching theme of emotional resonance in people in the vein of Henry David Thoreau’s literature. This is an ambitious, dense, slippery piece of experimental filmmaking with big ideas and Carruth conveys these enthralling notions through a masterwork in poetic editing, shot composition, and aural design.
First thing going in to this movie is to keep in mind that it demands one’s complete attention. It’s one of those rare and brilliant types of film where every shot is relevant, where every nuanced gesture, every word spoken, literally everything is imbued with meaning, all crucial to fully understanding its labyrinthine level of operation. I never got lost or baffled by the narrative myself but there are some gaps pertaining to the imaginative elements in the story that Carruth purposely chose to leave behind without any explanations which is understandable (e.g. the origin of the blue stuff, whatever it is). The focal point anyway is a romance between two individuals; sounds simple enough, but the way their relationship came about and evolved is anything but.
Kris, played with mesmerizing pathos and poignancy by Amy Seimetz (she sort of reminds me of the awesome Brit Marling of Another Earth fame), is a career woman who’s got a nice job, a pretty house, in general, a contented life. That is until a cunning conman with an elaborate scheme turns her life upside down one fateful evening. This is the part where the film disengages from reality, where a little bit of some pretty sweet body horror gets injected and poor Kris is left as a shell of her former self. The mystery deepens when Jeff, stone-faced Carruth himself in the role, appears in her life, a man who shares the same sort of zombified symptom plaguing Kris. Forming the last piece of the puzzle is an unnamed pig farmer, who seems to possess a special bond with Kris and Jeff.
Carruth’s style is intoxicating. The creative handheld camera montages and visual motifs work really well here because they’re meant to illustrate the effects of the hive mind concept as well as the theme of interconnectedness. I’m completely taken by these deftly edited shots since they’re not there for aesthetic reasons only (unlike the self-indulgent, camera pornography of To the Wonder to make a point of comparison). Carruth’s shot continuity is mapped and planned to perfection and he makes his visuals flow seamlessly and organically. Moreover, I find Carruth’s use of sound and music to be remarkable, comprised mostly of crisp, elusive field recordings and mellow, sensuous ambient electronic sound waves that are disarmingly harmonized with the imagery.
This is deep, affecting stuff. Upstream Color is more than just a clever sci-fi indie film. It’s a tightly written, meticulously constructed, metaphorically ouroboric tale that will keep many guessing and transfixed throughout. Oh God, I need to watch Primer now.
★★★★★ review by Peaceful Stoner on Letterboxd
Shane Carruth when asked, what Upstream Color meant, reluctantly said that he does not prefer for it to have any single, specific interpretation. This statement, I comprehended to be his way of indirectly saying that if he were to spell out what it actually meant then it would take all the sheen, mesmerising beauty and the enigma of the film away. This is almost him saying he prefers people to come out with their own ideas and theories of it. Not only Upstream Color, but any abstract form of art deserves to be open to various interpretations, providing fodder for the brains of those who experience it and satisfaction that what they believe is the truth and that it was the original intention. After all, I am a believer that there is no single truth in anything. Abstraction in art forms might just be the best possible example of this.
We are born into this World, a helpless little toddler. We are guided by the light called Love. Initially we flourish and thrive under the care and cherishment of our Mother and the protective, life teaching adjuration of our Father. We are the apple of their eyes. Then we seek out the love of our lives to continue the cycle and keep the Bond of Love an unending one. Love is the most influential and strongest feeling that gels together all the living beings of the World with compassion. But, are we in control of the love we show on others, or are we under the control of love during our lives? This is almost similar to asking are we in control of our identity or are we under the control of our identity. Sometimes, we are deprived of Love, our Lives become parched, hit a drought making me think that we are in fact under the control of love. We are bound by Love in every step of our lives, without even realizing it. Is not realizing that a blessing because it gives us self-confidence and self-belief that we are indeed responsible for our actions rather than some intangible feeling lording over us. Not realizing this ideology makes us Men of Nature. Is realizing a blessing because it always keeps us in the right path, never once allows us to deviate and treat every being on Earth as we would like to be treated. Realizing this ideology makes us Men of Grace. Either way, Love is an inexplicable and the most wondrous feeling ever known. It is a magic which no one can quite explain how, what or why it happens. It is the rarest parasite which thrives in every living being on Earth.
Is Love mind altering, or are our minds a perfectly acclimatized pasture for Love? God only knows.
Either way, Love is the Worm.
We do not know who He is, no one has seen Him. We do not even know whether he exists at all. Those who believe in His existence, realize that He is indeed in charge of all the happenings and their consequences. They believe, He controls them, every moment of their lives, observing them, noting down every action, reaction, evaluating them all through their lives. All these eventually decide, at the time of death, whether He welcomes the Departed to His Home, Heaven or whether he rues his creations and sends them to His Neighbour, The Devil’s Home, Hell. Those who accept God are definitely in a better place and find peace within them. Those who deny with rationale are always against the storm. What the theists try to find in the heavens up above, the atheist try to find on Earth. They look, search, strive and try to find and also bring out more Gods of Love in the Living beings on Earth.
God is the Sampler for theists.
Nature is the Sampler for Atheists.
What was created with an intention of living together, sharing love and generosity, spreading warmth and prospering in eternal happiness has now become the place for cruelty, snatching, war, racialism and endless other evils against their own kind and those who have inhabited the World even before them.
What was created as something of the people, by the people and for the people has now become only for those people who run it. I do not offend them all; there are some rare gems who sincerely strive for the betterment of this World under several constraints. But the majority supress them, make them incompetent; make them dumb and unheard of; reducing them and their ideals to mere nothingness. They are those who fill their tummies with the hard earned money of the tax payers, bathe themselves in the blood, sweat and tears of the honest hard working man. They are leeches who thrive due to the existence of a disease, which has now become a part and parcel of this modern world, called Corruption.They rob the people blind.
The Government, the politicians, and all those rabid money minded predators are Mongrels bred from the strains of Greed and Discontentment.
They are the thief.
It would be very pleasurable in this world to find a true, loyal friend who shares joy and sorrow with equanimity with you. How pleasurable would it be to find a Soul Mate, a person who shares your ideas, memories, childhood experiences, your future, your life? Wouldn’t that be Heaven on Earth? Yes it would be. But God always has a taste for a little sour twist in the tale. He always tests those who are in true love, trying to find out whether they snap or strengthen their bonds going through ordeals. He has such a vague curiosity which involves toying around even with people who mean no harm.
Jeff and Kris are Soul Mates. They find the puppeteer controlling them and all those who are similar to them, kill him and rest their souls in peace for eternity. That was for me Carruth’s way of stating that life would be more peaceful only if we alone are responsible and hold control rather than the impression of living under the rule of a supremo who never cares.
What some perceive to be a heavy, heady mix of discombobulating sounds, visuals, unexplainable characters and motivations was for me an enticing microcosmic representation of the world, a rhythmic, weirdly lyrical story which pulled and convinced me to look under its beautiful veil and unearth the bigger picture.
Shane Carruth, you are one of a kind. You are probably the best among the one of the kinds. You had the balls to produce, you had the guts to direct, you had the vision to write, you had the edginess to edit, you had the great self-belief to star, you had the incredible aesthetics to shoot, and you had the trance like mind and tremendous sense of the affiliation to the concept that you scored the music too.
You are a Genius.
Your brain is made of the same material as the Sun. They are burning with the passion to conquer unexplored ideas, themes and film making styles. I revere You.
Let your Sun Dance!
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