Ever experienced the pure bliss of closing your eyes and filling your lungs with the fragrance of fresh rain-soaked soil that fills the air, just as the first drops of rain grace the dry earth? Ever reveled in that moment in a suspended state, and felt close to nature as the first showers gently caressed your face? Watching Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" (2013) is like experiencing a similar kind of joy. In an era of epic action blockbusters and 3D animation extravaganzas, maverick American filmmaker Shane Carruth dares to step out of the suffocating sameness and ventures into an all new territory and gives us starved cinephiles a reason to rejoice.
Credited for almost everything, from writing, producing, directing, cinematography, editing to even composing the score for this film, Shane Carruth has established with his exhilarating second film, that he is a bold visionary, a brand new auteur who wishes to realize his vision his own way. And therefore, Carruth employs a style of storytelling that will throw you off guard. Brace yourself for an almost "2001: A Space Odyssey"-esque methodology of a narrative that banks simply on visuals and sound and keeps the dialog minimal to put its point across. Much like Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece, Carruth includes some spoken words, but most of it is muddled. What is left are moving images and a hypnotic soundtrack.
Grubs from the soil in some flower pots are collected in beakers by a suspicious looking man known in the credits only as the Thief (Thiago Martins). Some kind of potion being made from and containing the grub is force fed to a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz in a spectacular, believable performance) who apparently gets drunk on it and her mental faculties are temporarily inhibited. The Thief spews random talk, gets Kris addicted to iced water, and seemingly extracts money from her. Kris makes some DNA-like helical coils out of paper. Later the Thief disappears. A worm-like presence crawls underneath Kris' skin, which a foley artist, known only as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), extracts from her body and transfuses it to a pig. The pig gets Kris' name tag stapled on its ear and is transported to a pig farm, also owned by the foley artist.
This is what you see in the beginning. But what does it all mean?
Time passes. Jeff (Shane Carruth) makes an appearance. A bond is established between Kris and Jeff. But strange things continue to happen. Random talks abound. Confusions, shared memories, mix-ups, paranoia, pigs, colored waters and finally orchids, the likes of which you may never have seen!
Like the potion made out of the worm in the beginning, Carruth concocts a potent drug and administers it on the audience through his "Upstream Color". The film plays out like a substance-induced, spacey trip, complete with its handheld camerawork (with natural color schemes, reminiscent of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011)), hazy and incoherent scenes, psychedelic soundscapes comprising of a sometimes electronic, sometimes melancholic and symphonic, moving background score that is effective and captivating. He very cleverly steers clear of making a nice straightforward package out of it. He doesn't include self-explanatory dialog. Nor does he resort to long metaphysical ramblings.
Instead, Carruth relies on a linear, but fractured narrative. Vagueness is the name of the game. Blurred events, the meanings of which are equally cloudy are rife in the script. Carruth urges viewers to feel, experience, and not be in a hurry to analyze. But Carruth's film isn't all about smugness. He still writes his scenes in such a way as to leave subtle clues for the viewers to decipher a meaning. The design of the screenplay is meticulous. The placement of scenes is carefully thought out. There's a lot being said without words. It is only through images that a complete meaning is conveyed. One just needs to surrender and understand the language in which it is being communicated.
Sure enough, patient viewers will find themselves soaking up in the sublime beauty of "Upstream Color", thanks to its visually enchanting and ethereal sonic richness. The aesthetics of Carruth's film is one of the driving forces that will entice viewers back to it in order to get to the bottom of this complex mystery. Indeed, with each repeat viewing, there will be some new wealth to gather.
New doors would be opened when one delves deeper into the significance of that marvelous editing, which gives way to jaw-dropping scenes like one in which a bed with a couple on it ends up in the pig farm full of the grunting little mammals! Colors will be seen in a different light. The yellow paint and the vivid blue orchid will make more sense. The high pitched sounds that seem to emanate from within the ground will seem more familiar. The answers that the protagonists seek to explain their disarrayed states will finally become tangible. The psychic connections will be comprehended. Even if they lie covered in wet mud!
Shane Carruth has delivered a brave and refreshingly original film after his debut "Primer" (2004) which was just as challenging but somewhat tedious at the same time. With "Upstream Color" he raises the bar for himself as well as his peers and for this feat alone, Carruth deserves the laurels.
Trying to get to get to the bottom of "Upstream Color" is as challenging as trying to understand the dynamics of nature itself. In the end, when it comes to nature, it is all about giving in, embracing it and basking in its experience, rather than trying to understand it. Only in the case of "Upstream Color", you will not be left without any answers. Just keep digging. The answer lies within.