Early in Upstream Color, we see someone methodically extract writhing grubs from soil samples. Later, this unnamed man uses these wormy creatures to drug a film producer, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who, under their effects, becomes suggestible and obedient, as if hypnotized. Eventually, she is drawn away from her captor by a mysterious stranger (Andrew Sensenig) who extracts the worms and transfers them to a pig. We return to his experiments on the pig farm repeatedly as the movie goes on. Meanwhile, Kris’s mind-control is broken — but so may be her mind itself.
This sounds like a prelude to a paranoid science fiction nightmare. But while writer-director-cinematographer-co-editor-composer-star Shane Carruth’s previous and only other film Primer packed its tricky narrative with hard-science jargon, Upstream Color eschews exposition, explanation, and the typical building blocks of its sort-of genre to an even greater degree; hardly anyone in the movie talks about anything that is happening to them in the movie. Whatever the frustrations of this technique, it gives the movie an organic unpredictability, like an ending or a new beginning could happen at any moment.
Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), survivor of a similar ordeal. What becomes their improbable courtship has a prickly directness; he approaches her on a train, gets her number from her business card, and insists he’ll be calling her for non-business reasons. They go on dates that are principally defined by neither party running away, although at first Kris looks like she could bolt at any second. They stay together, eventually they find that they may be blending their consciousness, bickering over whose childhood memories are whose.
Here, the movie is, I think, supposed to take on the added dimension of an interdependent, possibly desperate romance. But Carruth’s multi-hyphenate status is a technical feat that may not yet extend to fully developed acting prowess. With his slightly gaunt face and serious eyes, he has striking physical presence without the charisma or soulfulness to back it up. His performance opposite Seimetz (whose lostness is more convincing) feels like a simulation of humanity, and the lines he writes for himself to deliver have an alien quality.
It’s probably not supposed to matter much. For the majority of its running time, the movie attempts to transcend the need for that dialogue — which probably makes its forays into same sound weirder and more scattered than they otherwise would. At his best, Carruth reaches for the effect Terrence Malick has seemingly been after for years now: narrative driven not by action, scenes, or words, but pure sight-and-soundscape filmmaking. Malick still depends on voiceover to connect his dots of roving-camera poetry; Carruth often lets his score bleed his shots together, trusting his shallow-focus images and uneasy score to create feeling — and out of that feeling, his story.
But the movie’s transcendence of traditional forms is fleeting, perhaps because the feelings Carruth evokes (or, for me, fails to fully evoke) gesture toward vague themes (Alienation? Our place within the natural life cycle?), not human emotion or even human analysis. It turns out there’s a touch of alien to his directing, too. Though the movie has beautiful and terrifying moments, like the shot of worms slithering under Kris’s skin, it’s not all that aesthetically pleasing; his cinematography has a washed-out, overcast pallor that rarely changes, and his ambitious editing wounds the film’s momentum with dozens of tiny cuts.
Upstream Color requires close attention to follow a series of events that aren’t actually that dense, yet its dreamlike montage renders it difficult, for me at least, to recall beyond fragments. In some ways, the recollection is more engaging than the actual viewing, at least the first time. (Carruth so far has specialized in movies that seem Jerry-rigged to “require” a second viewing; whether this is brainy outside-the-box thinking or an arthouse marketing ploy, I leave to you.) Carruth may not have intended the movie as a puzzle, and closely examined, it’s not; it’s a straightforward story with some well-concealed offhand details, told in a sometimes inscrutable manner. So what, exactly, about this story requires that it be told in tricky, impressionistic slivers? What, for that matter, requires that it be told at all?
This is an unfair question for most movies, which often have no real reason to exist, sometimes to our great pleasure. Doubtless a movie like Upstream Color will strike some as a rebuke to that pointlessness, and indeed, its heedless confidence and ambition can be exhilarating. But the exhilaration fades; in the end, the amount of work on and off the screen dwarfs any sense of joy.