There are genuinely amazing films that push the boundaries in aesthetic, narrative, theme, style or characterisation and then there are those that are nothing more than a pretentious self-indulgent wank posing to be an art film of great import. Upstream Color is a film that balances precariously on the line that divides greatness from the god-awful, moments of beauty offset by lengthy periods that are seemingly devoid of meaning and/or relevance to what precedes and follows.
If Upstream Color is meant to confuse, then it must be judged an outstanding success. It’s unlikely that anybody can accurately describe what this film is about and I’m not even sure such understanding is necessary, although no doubt Director Shane Carruth would have us believe there is some deep seeded philosophical meaning to it all. There have been a great many impenetrable films before, including some from luminaries such as Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick (Tree of Life anybody), so Carruth is certainly not the first filmmaker to compromise audience engagement for artistic vision.
Having said all that, there is plenty to like about this film and I was never bored watching at any stage, even if much of it felt superfluous to the core narrative. The film opens with a young woman being abducted by an unnamed assailant who forces her to ingest a grub. Kris (Amy Seimetz) subsequently falls into a zombie-like state controlled by her abductor, who forces her to undertake a series of repetitive tasks, such as writing out every page of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, while her bank account is drained. I mean, simply putting her under hypnosis could have achieved the same effect, but I guess Carruth can’t allow himself to be seen doing what anybody else might do.
When Kris emerges from her stupor with her abductor long gone, she can feel the worm-like grub travelling under her skin and hacks into her body with a knife in an unsuccessful attempt to remove it. However, it isn’t until Kris stumbles across The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a mysterious figure who records sounds from the natural landscape, that she finds relief. The Sampler transplants the worm from Kris into a pig and, from this point, the film breaks into two parallel but connected narratives. We follow Kris as she deals with the consequences and confusion that follows and we also follow The Sampler as he tends the pigs on his farm, one of which carries the worm removed from Kris.
As she attempts to return to a semblance of normality, Kris meets Jeff (Carruth, who also produced, co-wrote, co-edited and wrote the score) and initially rejects him. However, it is soon apparent that they have a connection and a romance ensues, albeit one in which neither party ever seems entirely sure of themselves, their relationship or their place in the world. With very little dialogue, Carruth relies on imagery, sound, editing and music to progress the narrative. There are some beautifully poetic visuals and the soundscape is haunting, but much of it seems redundant; simply a strategy to extend the running time to feature length.
Seimetz is terrific as Kris, a woman who loses everything she knows and has to start again in a world that seems somehow foreign to her. Even if we never completely understand what is going on, we can’t help but feel the emotion of her experience. Carruth clearly has a story to share and has constructed a telling that is visually stunning and, I have to admit, surprisingly compelling. However, it is a hard film to grasp and certainly difficult to explain with any clarity within the confines of this review. It is remarkable and exasperating in equal measure and it will most certainly test the patience of viewers, but who says the film going experience should be easy.