Director: Shane Carruth
Writer: Shane Carruth
Stars: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
Release date: April 5th, 2013
Running time: 96 minutes
Best part: The enigmatic performances.
Worst part: The wavering pace.
Every so often, an independent movie comes along that changes the face, and audience preconceptions, of American cinema. Travelling from SXSW to Sundance or Cannes, the movie may reach out to multiple generations and give us new reasons to watch indie features. I’m not one to support indie flicks over blockbusters, but I will say that indie films are more likely to tug the heartstrings than most big-budget productions. This year’s festival favourite, Upstream Color, is, despite its relatively minor issues, significantly more thought-provoking than anything currently playing at your local cineplex.
Upstream Color is a perplexing and mysterious trip into two subject’s psyches. It may be puzzling, but it has enough emotional and narrative resonance to be considered one of 2013’s greatest works. Like most sci-fi movies of this type, it slowly reigns in the audience before delving into something greater. It starts with a hurried leap into Carruth’s seemingly sinister world. There are many storied scenes indicating that the creation and use of a new experimental drug is in full effect. The drug’s latest victim is a struggling young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz). After spotting her at a downtown club, one of the experiment’s creators, listed only as ‘Thief’ (Thiago Martins), targets and forces Kris to take the drug. The drug, as you will quickly find out, has qualities that separate it from anything we’ve seen before. After being released from this peculiar test, her life quickly begins to unravel. Strange occurrences and bank withdrawals suggest that the scientists were looking for much more than just a mindless test subject. She then meets a young man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who has also been affected by the tests. We are also subjected to strains of a much larger story (including short stories involving entirely different people). Kris and Jeff form a surreal bond that may reshape the fabric of their shattered existences and the future.
As you can tell, this movie requires the utmost attention throughout its 96 minute run-time. Despite not being as smart as it thinks it is, there are multiple elements that still make it enthralling. This is a story all about regret, hope and survival. Carruth (the movie’s director, writer, producer, composer, and lead actor) understands how sci-fi’s intricacies operate and fit together with one another. Carruth, known primarily for his previous indie hit Primer, creates sci-fi stories that don’t need aliens, action set-pieces or an epic scope. The result is a proudly earnest and existential look at the human condition. Beyond the movie’s slight aura of pretentiousness, it delivers a timeline that is intricate and enthralling. We see the drug being passed on from one life form to the next. Pigs, nematodes, and plant life are a large part of this dour narrative. This may seem weird, but this movie describes how every cell, DNA strand, and personality trait can affect everything and everyone around us. Unfortunately, the only people who might be exposed to, or interested in, this profound movie will most likely be undertaking a university-level screen arts course. Its strange and complex narrative harks back to the 80/90s sci-fi/drama films of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. This story is original yet slightly familiar. Look closely for elements of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Inception as they both strongly relate to Carruth’s work. However, unlike most psychological sci-fi features, Upstream Color‘s universe becomes increasingly claustrophobic (smaller) as time passes. Carruth also balances violence and philosophy – drawing comparisons between him and Darren Aronofsky (specifically The Fountain).
“There are two approaching armies: hunger and fatigue, but a great wall keeps them a bay. The wall extends to the sky and will stay up until I say otherwise.” (Thief (Thiago Martins), Upstream Color).
The film’s puzzle-like narrative may seem intelligent, but Carruth’s style distracts from the movie’s story and pathos. I wouldn’t mind his Steven Soderbergh/Terence Malick-esque cinematography and editing styles if they weren’t so repetitive and typical. Despite the beautiful sunshine-filled settings, many shots are hollow and unending. Carruth – intercutting the love story with footage of two pigs interacting with one another – relies too much on his complex understanding of physics and biology which quickly alienates viewers. Meanwhile, Carruth’s strict focus on angst and moodiness restricts his film to feeling like a 96 minute montage. With this style, the characters come off as self-centred and vaguely unlikeable. We are unable to see anything beyond their blank faces and romantic journey. Their romance, though convincing, is infinitely more interesting in movies such as Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. But this ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape meets The Adjustment Bureau’ tale is hauntingly intimate and delicate. The dour love story is crafted out of pain and misery. Thankfully, Carruth and Seimetz’ charming yet disturbing performances elevate this portion of the narrative. Overcoming the limited amount of dialogue, their characters’ wavering emotional and mental states soon become fascinating to watch.
Upstream Color is a cloying, atmospheric, and moody indie film that is unafraid to reach for the stars. Carruth’s auteur approach has delivered one of 2013’s most intricate and touching sci-fi dramas. Despite its minor flaws, Carruth and Seimetz’ performances help to develop the intriguing and angst-filled narrative.