SXSW FILM 2013
By Linc Leifeste | March 12, 2013
Director: Shane Carruth
Writer: Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
A film that I have no doubt will prove polarizing to viewers, Upstream Color is hard to write about. It’s rare for me to walk out of a film with the thought that it was over my head but that was exactly the unpleasant sensation I had after screening Upstream Color. There is the feeling of a coherent narrative somewhere in there and the sense that the director (and writer and producer and actor and cinematographer and composer and editor) has crafted a film that tells a decipherable story if you can just put all the pieces together. But for the life of me, after one viewing, I couldn’t put much together at all.
The film opens at an underground nursery where maggot-like insects are being harvested from the soil of orchids and then strained through some kind of liquid which is then consumed by willing test subjects, evidently as some kind of study of their hallucinogenic (or possibly reality-altering) effects. But soon things expand beyond willing test subjects when a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is suddenly abducted by a kidnapper (Thiago Martins) and forcibly fed one of the insects. This causes her to go into some kind of hypnotic state during which she is functional but unable to act independently. Over the next few days the kidnapper proceeds to have her hand over her entire savings, home equity and available credit card cash advance funds before disappearing. Kris comes to her senses to find her life destroyed but only after using a large kitchen knife to try to cut out the insect she can feel and see crawling around under her skin.
Soon thereafter she is evidently freed from her worm occupation by a mysterious person who seems to perform some kind of operation to transfer the creature from her body to that of a pig. The pig is then transported to a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig), who also has the habit of recording and manipulating sounds.
But back to Kris, who over time meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), another person with a blurry past who is evidently just as adrift in the world and they haltingly develop a kinship. Eventually it’s revealed that Jeff has the same worm extraction scar as Kris and as they spend time together and begin to share childhood memories their memories begin to blur together, with neither any longer knowing which past is their own. There’s a clear connection between a couple of pigs belonging to the mysterious pig farmer and Kris and Jeff but whether that’s because they shared worms in the past or something more complex is hard to know. Oh, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden plays a big role somehow.
Beautifully presented and expertly edited, Upstream Color is a visual and sensual thrill but beyond that I had a hard time connecting. There are issues that are broached about identity and autonomy and free will and connection but not in any way that I could process meaningfully on first viewing. Amy Seimetz turns in a brilliant performance but beyond that I didn’t find myself connecting to her character and honestly, I found Carruth’s acting to be a bit flat. Or maybe it was just the character. Or possibly I was turning the resentment I was feeling towards him for making a movie that I couldn’t understand against the character he was playing.
Without a doubt, this is the most challenging and cerebral film I’ve seen in a long time and I’ll give Carruth a lot of credit for that. In some ways, I was reminded of the more abstract elements of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life but where that film provided long stretches of narrative storytelling that drew me in, this one not so much. A key element in my personal appreciation of film was lacking; to me this felt like a beautiful cerebral exercise with no emotional connection. I never felt invested in the lead characters and that made it a hard film to watch. And a challenging review to write.