Upstream Color was my first film at the SXSW Film Festival this year, and I went into it very skeptical that I would like it. The trailer and just about everything else about the film screams abstract and artistic, two words that usually do not make for a good film in my opinion.
Shane Carruth, the mind behind Primer, arrives back in the film arena after being absent for nine years. Carruth is the writer, director, cinematographer, composer, an editor, a producer, and also stars in Upstream Color. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before SXSW. Buzz about the film followed it to SXSW.
Upstream Color is a hard film to explain, even just what the basic plot is about. The official synopsis is: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.” That synopsis does not really give you any idea about the film, but it may increase your interest or your confusion about it. I will try to summarize the film, but, honestly, it is only be my version of what I think happens.
The film starts out with a gardener picking out worms (either maggots or waxworms in reality) that have been growing in the pots of certain plants. Drinking or consuming these worms has a weird effect on the consumer. They are able to mimic each other perfectly and are highly in a highly suggestible, brainwashed state during this period. Someone gets the idea to use it to get money from people, basically mind-raping them during this period. They remember none of it after the person is gone and the effects have worn off. Their lives fall into ruin. Then things get even weirder.
A booming sound is transmitted through the ground. This attracts those that have been affected by this worm toxin. They show up, and this is where the film falls into the science fiction category. A worm has actually been growing in their body and is taken out and transferred into a piglet. The sight of this is not for those with weak stomachs. A bond or conscience is then formed between this person and this pig. The pigs are kept on a farm and the person is let go to live their lives. There is someone called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) who monitors the people and the pigs. What is odd is that the people have no clue that he is around watching them. Their mind blocks out his presence.
The film revolves around Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is the one we see get brainwashed and go through a pig transplant. Her life is thrown into disarray; until she catches the eye of Jeff (Shane Carruth) on the train one day after a year has passed. Kris is obviously not all there, but Jeff is drawn to her. It becomes fairly obvious that Jeff has experienced the same thing that Kris did.
Kris, Jeff, and The Sampler are the only main characters in Upstream Color, but through them a very complex story evolves. The film is not as much confusing as it is interesting and original. I wanted to figure out what was happening and why. Confusion leads to disinterest, but this is not the case. This is not what is expected and is surprisingly filled with some primal emotions as both Kris and Jeff struggle to cope with their experience and learn to live again as normally as possible.
There are some other elements in the film that I know have some greater meaning. One of those is Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Kris begins to recite the book line by line, and this starts to unravel the mystery of what happened to Kris and Jeff.
The film is hard to analyze and describe, and I realize this as I am trying to review it. While the film may be puzzling, it is equally beautiful due its cinematography and boasts unique and haunting music. The film is a mystery, drama, and science fiction all combined to make something that truly stands alone in what it tries to do for the film and the audience seeing it. Themes involving sound, loss, and love figure in heavily. I loathe those abstract, artistic films that only want to make the pictures beautiful and lose the point of the story in the process. Upstream Color is an artistic film, but the story of Kris and Jeff is interesting and compelling. I wanted to figure it out. At no point did I wish the film would end. The ending resolves some of the story lines but it opens up new questions. There is still much left to discuss and ponder after the credits start rolling.
While this film is not for everyone, it surprised me with how much I really fell for the complex plot and the characters. Upstream Color is one that will keep you guessing and questioning long after you leave the theatre.
I give Upstream Color 4 “glasses of ice water” out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek