Shane Carruth’s directorial debut, the über-low-budget time-travel drama Primer, won accolades at Sundance and was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards. It also sparked a wealth of conversation in people who never tired of untangling the movie’s purposefully confounding structure. Even though it took practically a decade for him to release his second film, the psychologically sci-fi tinged thriller Upstream Color, anybody haunted by Primer’s creepy overtones will instantly recognize it as the work of the same director.
Borrowing an approach that could best be called Malick-esque, Upstream Color dispenses with conventional scene structure. Carruth opens with a sequence of a worm-like animal being harvested out of a plant and kids daring each other to drink a concoction laced with liquid filtered through that creature. Soon we’re in a nightclub where a man slips the potion into the drink of an unsuspecting woman.
What follows is the most conventionally riveting section of the movie, an extended sequence where the man has the woman at a house or apartment, and seems to have total hypnotic control over her. She not only seems powerless to fight against his commands -- which start off having her perform pointless tasks repeatedly and end up involving her taking large sums of money out of her bank accounts -- but she also gives into them willingly.
While the aftermath of this encounter compromises the bulk of the movie, this opening is so relentlessly creepy, so disturbing in its fractured matter-of-factness, that Carruth proves he hasn’t lost an ounce of skill when it comes to unsettling an audience. Amy Seimetz -- who plays Kris, the brainwashed victim -- has an unforced naturalism that’s not only heartbreaking, but eliminates the possibility that the film could sink into melodrama. As Kris tries to put her life back together with the help of a new boyfriend (played by Carruth), Seimetz portrays her with such realistic repression -- she does not want to keep thinking about what happened to her -- that she becomes remarkably real to us.
The film works because you’re left in the dark about what transpires during most of the movie as Carruth effectively builds tension with his ambiguous plot, in addition to his unsettling editing rhythms and the superb sound design work of Johnny Marshall. Like Primer, we’re not quite sure what’s happening, but we never lose faith that Carruth understands the point of every line of dialogue and every shot.
That said, Upstream Color’s narrative just doesn’t hold together as strongly as Primer’s did. There are plot threads that never quite seem to be answered fully -- why is that pen full of pigs so important? Why do Kris and her boyfriend confuse each other’s histories? -- and while the film has most assuredly been designed to have viewers return to it again and again in order to unlock these mysteries, there is the nagging sense that for all of Carruth’s remarkable talent he’s let his pretensions and ambitions get the better of him.
Upstream Color is an undeniably unique experience, and that’s a rarity that makes it impossible to dismiss. Unlike his debut film Primer, there are no easy antecedents for what it does and how it tries to do it. However, also unlike Primer, Upstream Color never seems like it can be unlocked. It’s a Rubik’s Cube where the colors can not only shift just as you put them in alignment, but whole new hues can appear on it, or they might just drip off altogether onto the floor. The movie was built to attract a devout cult following, and there’s little doubt in that regard that Carruth has succeeded wildly.
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