Writer-director-actor-polymath Shane Carruth’s abstract, fearless, and utterly absorbing Upstream Color doesn’t reinvent cinema, but it does remind us what cinema can do when we are willing to put ourselves at the mercy of a filmmaker’s vision.
Abstract, mesmerizing, allegorical to the core, and willing to forge its own structure for the sake of telling a story the way the director needs to tell it, Upstream Color is what Terrence Malick often aims for but usually misses.
It’s difficult to sum up the movie’s three threads in just a couple of paragraphs, but here goes: In the ultimate act of identity theft, a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drugged with a concoction derived from worms and orchids, kidnapped, and brainwashed by a shadow-cloaked thief (Thiago Martens) into signing over her money, home, and possessions.
Released back into the world afterwards, a devastated but also empowered Amy is approached by Jeff (Carruth), an unemployed financial-sector employee who claims to have had the same experience, as well as some of the same thoughts, as her. The two begin a rocky romance, hampered by their respective baggage.
Lurking on the periphery of all of this is a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) with a penchant for experimental sound recording, who increasingly begins to figure into the story.
Carruth, a Dallas-area native, drew much attention when he won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with his 2004 debut film, the mind-bending time-travel tale Primer. This is his first feature since then, and not only has his unwavering insistence on telling his story in his own way endured (he’s credits on the film also include producer, editor, cinematographer, and composer), they’ve been refined. Like the best surrealistic works, it is both unnerving and compelling, full of enigmatic imagery.
Carruth has confidence and conviction in his vision, enough to insist that the audience experience it on his terms rather than pandering to mass appeal. Upstream Color is a movie you feel rather than see, and the feeling penetrates to the core of us all.