Shane Carruth first drew large acclaim for Primer, an ambitious time travel movie filmed for only $7000 which he wrote, directed, co-starred in, did the music and editing on. It’s a bold film, for not only portraying a big idea in a very down to Earth way, but for its sheer mind-bending storyline that has greatly divided fans, and not just in terms of understanding it or not. Now, after almost a decade, he’s back with a new piece of just-about-sci-fi, Upstream Colour, and he’s lost none of his edge; in fact, in many ways this exceeds Primer.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is deliberately infected by a strange, parasitic organism, which has a mind-altering effect, by “The Thief” (Thiago Martins). After the organism has been “sampled” from her, she has no memory of the event and her life is left in tatters. She soon meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), who has also lost much, and together they begin to rebuild their lives. But the organism and those who harvest it aren’t finished with them just yet.
One thing that Primer was criticised for was the labyrinthine plot that seemed to refuse to give concessions to the audience (the storyline there involves up to nine overlapping alternative timelines). In some ways, Upstream Colour may be criticised for the same thing, as there is a lot of plot to digest the film never stopping to explain or give exposition; it’s a case of show, not tell. On one hand, this can be disorientating, as there’s a lot to keep up with and it’s not always well conveyed, so it can take a few moments to catch up with plot points. On the other, it’s pretty refreshing to see a movie treat its audience as though they have brains in their heads and it does make one think about the story and its implications.
Even if the plot is hard to follow this is a film that’s great to just sit back and look at. Carruth shows a knack of creating incredibly beautiful, unsettling and at times alien images out of relatively mundane scenes and surroundings. Even an act as simple as walking through an office can be a sight of remarkable grace, weight and importance. There are also some wonderfully abstract moments that bring across ideas about how the organism this is all based around works. This is further empathised by strong editing, which in turn can make some aspects of the plot clearer than exposition ever could, simply by paralleling several different events and showing the connections. As well as looking great, it sounds incredible. Not only is Shane Carruth back on sound duties, giving a very evocative and unobtrusive score, but overall the use of sound effects is used to great effect, in and out of story.
The films’ biggest strength though is its sense of humanity. At no point does it lose focus from its characters and what they’re going through. As you begin to understand what precisely has happened/is happening to the main characters, you can’t help but feel for them and sympathise with them. While it’s not explicitly said why those behind what’s going on do what they do, there’re more than enough character moments with “The Thief” and “The Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig) to make you understand their motivations, which is especially impressive in the latter’s case since he has so little dialogue. Of course full points have to go to the main leads Shane Carruth and especially Amy Seimetz (also an indie filmmaker like Carruth); she has quite the large character arc all the way through this film, showing an incredible range and she’s able to pull it off with great aplomb; she’s a talent to watch out for.
In the end, Upstream Colour is a bold, independent effort that’s quite an achievement on its relatively small budget but big ambitions. This won’t be to everyone’s tastes; it does demand you keep up with its storyline, although not nearly to the degree Primer did. It’s overall meaning may be somewhat unclear but this is a story that seems to actively encourage debate and analysis, which some may declare to be pretentious, but it’s overall charm and heart negate such claims. It’s a beautiful exploration of character, of how life can throw a curveball at us, how much our pasts define who we are and it’s gorgeous to experience. Leave all preconceptions at the door, enjoy and discuss.