The title of Shane Carruth’s entrancingly beautiful second feature, Upstream Color, comes from a bluish substance that swirls around drowned baby pigs that came from a sow into which a mind-controlling worm that had been implanted in and removed from an abducted woman by a pig farmer – sound designer was transplanted and carried downriver to wild orchids … I’ve lost control of this sentence. But. But. If you could diagram a thing in words, why make a movie about it? I’ve seen Upstream Color twice and liked it enormously while never being certain of anything. This is not precisely an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation. The clothes are real — or at least surreal. It’s the emperor I’m not sure about. But some movies warrant a leap of faith.
Carruth’s debut, Primer (2004), divided viewers: Was it mystifyingly bad or mystifyingly good? I drifted back and forth before settling in the rushes on the Pro bank, less because I can chart the permutations of its time-travel narrative (an online community after nine years almost can) than because the movie seems a potent distillation of the perils (emotional, intellectual, existential) of second-guessing. According to a profile in Wired, by Brian Raftery, that is both lucid and respectful of its subject’s mystery, Carruth conceived of Primer after waking up in a hospital with a head injury following an auto accident. Perhaps the best critic of his long-gestating sophomore film would be Oliver Sacks.
Barely visible beneath the surface of Upstream Color are the vague outlines of a sci-fi feminist revenge picture. After a prologue in which two boys engage in a ritualistic worm-tea ceremony watched by a man identified in the credits as the Thief (Thiago Martins), the protagonist, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is glimpsed running a race. (There is one shot of her future mate — played by Carruth — running, too, but then he disappears for half an hour. I only caught that shot the second time through.) She works in some sort of special-effects company — significant? Our first sustained look at her is when the Thief drags her out of a restaurant and forces a worm down her throat that makes her instantly pliable. At her home, he gives instructions in a mechanical voice and she executes them earnestly, her mouth scrunched up with a childlike sense of purpose. While he sleeps, she piles up stones and copies by hand the first pages of Walden. Then she starts signing checks.
The syntax is clipped, allusive, sometimes reallyfuckingannoying. Carruth imparts information on a need-to-know basis and clearly thinks we need to know less than we think we do. His self-composed Eno-ambient score suggests that little in Upstream Color is meant to be time-and-space-specific. What happens to Kris might be a coded sexual violation, though I can’t figure out the Thoreau connection. When the Thief leaves, she tries to remove the worms under her skin with a butcher knife — and then wakes up en route to the pig farmer–sound designer, identified in the credits as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who operates on her and a pig side by side. Later, he seems to be a spirit, looking on after a fight between a man and a pleading wife that isn’t referenced before or after. The Sampler does not interact with the Thief, though both engage in worm-related activity.
Upstream Color could also be taken as Carruth’s version of Moonrise Kingdom: a symbolic fairy tale of damaged souls who help each other work through primal injuries. Carruth’s Jeff is drawn to Kris — broke, fired from her job, desolate — on his morning train commute. She shows him all her meds. He opens his own dark closet. All of this is intercut with footage of pigs.
The official synopsis reads, “A man and woman are drawn together, unknowingly entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.” I don’t know what that means either, but I loved looking at the actors’ faces. Seimetz is more fascinating the more you look, and Carruth is all soft eyes and hard cheekbones — his face is like his syntax.
Perhaps if too much info were added, you wouldn’t be as spellbound. It would be as if Stanley Kubrick had showed a bunch of aliens watching Keir Dullea eat his peas and saying, “I think these Earthlings might be ready for us now.” You probably wouldn’t watch 2001 for the eighth time with the same sense of wonder — and I wouldn’t be readying myself for a third go-round with Upstream Color.
This review appeared in the April 8 issue of New York magazine.