SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | January 26, 2013
Director: Shane Carruth
Writer: Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Myles McGee
Writer-director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is precisely what I love most about art, it is a fully immersive experience that questions the way in which we perceive the world. A head trip of sound and vision, the meanings and intentions of Upstream Color are impossibly oblique. There is only one thing that is for certain — there is nothing absolute about Upstream Color, so what follows are merely my interpretations of the on-screen events.
Our transcendental journey begins at a nursery where pale, maggot-like insects are collected from the soil of orchids. The insects are carefully separated and dropped into jars depending on whether they are healthy or dead. Presumably bearing psychotropic characteristics, the healthy insects are soaked in a liquid which is then willingly consumed by a group of young test subjects. While under the powerful influence of the insects, the test subjects showcase superhuman reflexes and powers of mental telepathy.
What appears to be a research study is then escalated to the direct consumption of the insects. One such test subject, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is force-fed the creepy crawly insect by a kidnapper (Thiago Martins). The strange psychotropic qualities of the insect place Kris under a hypnotic haze which can be controlled by the kidnapper. When Kris finally becomes conscious again, she is left poor and jobless, suffering from PTSD.
Kris eventually meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), with whom she seems to share a unique kinship. They both try to decipher their blurry pasts, slowly fitting the puzzle pieces of their memories together. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden serves as the cornerstone of Kris’ memories and an existential key for both of them.
Parallel to the story of Kris and Jeff is the tale of a rancher (Andrew Sensenig) whose pigs begin to develop strange qualities. This mysterious man is also somehow connected to the insect research and is seemingly able to transport himself — via energy from his pigs — like a ghost into the worlds of the unknowing subjects of the research. Presumably their memorization of Walden eventually leads the test subjects to this man’s farm, where they learn to work collectively for the good of their community. Or something like that…
Upstream Color begs to be compared and contrasted with Thoreau’s Walden. Both narratives evolve into social experiments, though they seem to have different opinions on individualism versus collectivism. Additionally, both stories revolve around the human connection with nature; though in the case of Upstream Color that connection is made much more literally. Also, the shedding of wealth and possessions to free oneself plays a major role in both Upstream Color and Walden, although in the former it is not by choice. Carruth’s film also echoes the concepts of Buddhism, discussing the cycle of life and the inter-connectivity of all living creatures. Then, on another plane of existence, Upstream Color tells the story of the psychological turmoil resulting from a kidnapping and the overcoming of the resulting crippling stress and paranoia.
Or, maybe that’s not what Upstream Color is about at all…
Functioning as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, composer, and editor, Carruth is the epitome of the modern day auteur. No matter how confusing and frustrating Upstream Color may be, there is no denying the amazingly singular artistic vision that produced this film. Echoing the godlike control that is held over the film’s test subjects, Carruth is the grand creator and chief inquisitor of this uniquely cinematic world.