Shane Carruth’s first film “Primer” was a maddeningly precise work of genius. Its lo-fi, home movie charm managed to amplify the science aspect of science fiction with a dense, procedural script. By its nature, it demanded to be scrutinized but resisted being solved, and “Primer” survives as not quite a cult mind-bender and not quite a critical darling.
Now nine years later, Carruth has grown up from a young man with studious fascination to a worn 30-something with little to his name. “Upstream Color” trades in the jargon for few words at all, and yet it is no less beguiling, impenetrable and a potential masterpiece.
But impenetrable does not mean without feeling. What can’t be unraveled about the plot or motivations in “Upstream Color” is amended by the pain and confusion that is inherent in these characters. On a rudimentary level, “Upstream Color’s” fantastical element involves a powerful form of hypnosis, a device used not as a suspense builder or parable, but one that makes us feel lost due to powers beyond our control.
We know very little about Kris and Jeff (Amy Seimetz and Carruth), a couple drawn together for reasons unknown even to them. Kris at the start of the film had been kidnapped and drugged with a strange maggot found in the soil of a blue flower. Her attacker (Thiago Martins) has complete control over her mind, first testing her mind’s loyalty by forcing her to count poker chips and transcribe pages of “Walden” and linking them in paper chains. He then has her bank account emptied and assets completely signed away, and in her absence loses her job.
Kris then seems to go to a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) for help. Through a gruesome surgical sequence, the maggots seem to have been moved from Kris to the animals and her memory is erased. But even this is uncertain; traces of Kris’s memory seem to be recalled in Jeff’s childhood stories and as she swims and collects rocks in a pool. The farmer conducts sonic experiments by recording rushing water and rocks sliding down a sewer pipe, and it’s unclear whether his work is designed to help or cause more harm.
How do you even begin interpreting a story like this? Do these characters have anything in common? Is there an answer to their loneliness and confusion? Could they be helped if we knew these details?
I find meaning in one of “Upstream Color’s” miniature vignettes within the story. A man’s wife stops him at the door every day and says something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I hope today will be better, and I love you.” Each day the man sees nothing in his wife’s eyes, and he walks out the door in blank defeat. Now his wife sits in a coma, and he’s even more conflicted than before.
How this ties to Kris and Jeff is unclear, if they relate at all. Rather, Carruth’s auteurist gifts as “Upstream Color’s” star, director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor and composer (!) are that every touch, image and sound has a sensation, a purpose and a bond attached. High gloss close-ups of faces from behind or side profile lend the film an effortless sensation of loneliness. Striking images of molecules and underwater cinematography are ethereal. And a tendency to truncate images and scenes that might otherwise provide clarity make the whole experience feel unsettling and uncertain.
Carruth’s characters’ observant, godlike resonance reflect Terrence Malick’s stamp, while the epic, more oblique symbolism and usage of the color blue reflect the more recent work of Paul Thomas Anderson. That it also so closely resembles his first film is a testament to his skill.
Malick and PTA make for high praise, but even critics watching “Upstream Color” have had to work for their meal. Answers are not to be found in one viewing or two. Carruth however seems so adamant that filling in our own blanks will be more enriching, that even the movie begins speculating what is happening.
On the subway, Kris and Jeff participate in the age-old act of inventing stories about the people they see, on appearance alone. Parts of the story are missing, someone else is suddenly pulling the strings of their lives, and yet deep insights of loss, heartbreak or amusement somehow grow out of it.
This act of people watching prevails over the more scientific aspects of “Upstream Color,” and the film shows its poetic beauty as we work diligently to fill in the puzzle pieces in this enigma of a story. This is a difficult film no doubt, but for those willing to do the work, the missing parts attain that feeling and significance we’d only find in our minds and hearts.