Another experimental film. Another film more concerned with experience and emotion than with a driven narrative. Don’t think there’s no story to Upstream Color, because there is – and it’s fascinating – but it’s so hidden and dissected that it takes some time to mentally reassemble. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the film is written and directed by Shane Carruth, who directed the 2004 mind-blower, Primer. And here, Carruth also serves as producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer. That level of auteurity is pretty staggering.
The story might be a little dense to try and describe, so I will quote directly from the film’s Sundance Film Festival program guide: “Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.” It is science fiction, and body horror, but to an astonishingly controlled degree. It is a cerebral, emotional thriller, but with none of the flash-bang of recent mind-benders like Inception, District 9 or Looper. Those are all essentially intelligent action sci-fi films, with conventional adventure set pieces, archetypes and set pieces. Upstream Color has none of those. Its conflict is so internal, the battle in body and brain, that with editing we can assume what is happening, but have zero assurances.
That said, if you have the patience, this is a film to be experienced. It is a beauty to view, and amazingly was shot on a “consumer-grade” camera, a Panasonic Lumix GH2, with Voigtlander and Rokinon lenses. From The Hollywood Reporter, “the experience of watching the film… is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves in a way that’s especially mesmerizing during this first section,” and “Carruth’s is a cinema of impressions and technique, not overt meaning.” The sound design and score is equally as impressive, carefully edited and toned to balance and brand the images. As one character is composing music to the microscopic madness, we realize how bound is the brain to tone, timing and theory.
As Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times said, “Color is somehow at once emotionally direct, while narratively abstract.” It reminds of the intimacy of image of Terrence Malick, the internal horror of David Cronenberg and the philosophy of ‘reality’ of Béla Tarr. With a little time, a little devotion, a lot of concentration and discussion once the film has finished, Upstream Color could become one of those movies you never fully understand and ultimately never forget.