Upstream Color (2013) Review

Directed by: Shane Carruth
Written by: Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
Everything Else: Also Shane Carruth

(Originally written for Youtube Mar 7 2016)

Shane Carruth is a one-man movie-making master. Yes, Upstream Color is only his second film after 2004’s Primer, but both films would be considered most other director’s magnum opus. And that’s ignoring that besides directing, Mr. Carruth also wrote, acted in, shot, edited, and soundtracked both films, and on a combined budget of less than $60,000.

Onto Upstream Color. It’s primarily a love story, but one told through a heavy and profound science-fiction lens. Actually, I really recommend you watch this movie as blind as possible; so if you want to hear what I think of it without spoilers skip to the time you see now on the video. I’ll give you a moment…and, last chance…ok.

We begin by seeing the development of a parasite that, once ingested, makes people incredibly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Then, a thief infects our protagonist, Kris, played by Amy Siemetz, with one of these parasites, using it to kidnap her and rob her blind. When the thief has taken everything, a man who samples noises from the earth composes a song that draws the infected Kris to him, where he removes the parasite, putting it into a pig. Then Kris is released with these events completely erased from her mind. Then she meets Jeff, played by Carruth, who has also suffered from this procedure. The two begin a relationship and have to figure out why they both have huge gaps in their memories, and begin remembering each-other’s childhoods as their own. They also have to deal with the incredible emotional turmoil that their parasite-pigs, who are also getting along very well, somehow have on their current life. The pigs are, uh, the pigs are a metaphor.

A lot of this movie is metaphorical, actually; but unlike other movies that rely on metaphor to convey plot-points, this one does so incredibly well, because it understands that the emotions in this case, are the plot, and ties them directly into the storytelling. The dreamlike imagery, almost…subliminal pacing, and intense feelings of paranoia expressed in the sequences of the movie become the plot, become what drives this movie forward. This movie doesn’t dip into metaphorical non-sequitur to emphasize “this is how this character is feeling;” it uses it’s metaphors to actively push these characters further along the plot. So many movies get this wrong and, those scenes can end up so needlessly confusing; but this film is a masterclass in how to tell story through emotion. Yes, because of this, the first act is a little unclear, but by the time keeping track of characters and plot really begins to matter, Upstream Color has given you all the elements to get your bearings and understand what’s happening, at least as much as the characters do as they begin to piece together their own lives. And the parallels with the pigs…I know this sounds completely bonkers; but how Carruth keeps on connecting the pigs to the main couple is simply amazing.

And all of this is matched by impeccable cinematography, editing, and sound-design that all come together to deliver the full aesthetic and emotional experience that the film presents. Everything is appropriately dreamlike and liminal, unevenly, sometimes ploddingly paced but never in a way where you aren’t completely engaged with the film. And the sound-design. Like everything else, it is a part of the holistic experience that is Upstream Color, and once you realize what exactly the music is and how it’s made diagetically… it will blow your mind exactly how well every piece of this film fits together.

Upstream Color is a fully realized vision, a holistic experience where every element compliments and enhances the next. It is profound without pretension, and emotionally true without ever becoming maudlin or indulgent.  It’s a film I’m glad I finally caught up with and watched, one of my new all-time favorites, and I can’t recommend it enough.