Shane Carruth made his name in the independent film world in 2004 with his debut, “Primer,” a sci-fi, time-travel thriller that he wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and starred in for a paltry sum of $7,000.
Critics loved it. Very few others actually saw it. But within a particular nook of the industry, “Primer” was duly heralded for its vision and precision, and it won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, which is all the more impressive given that Carruth, a former engineer, taught himself how to be a filmmaker.
Nine years later, he’s back with his much-anticipated follow-up, “Upstream Color,” which is just as daring and original at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum. If “Primer” was cerebral and methodical in allowing its mystery to unfurl, “Upstream Color” creates a totally different kind of suspense as a hypnotic sensory experience.
This is a capital-A art-house movie, definitely not for everyone. Carruth throws you in the deep end at the start and challenges you until the end. His mesmerizing use of imagery – of textures and sounds, of crisp lighting and radiant natural beauty – has a haunting, lyrical quality reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Earth churns, grass crunches, leaves snap. A hand softly caresses a bedsheet; hard, loud rain falls on a parking lot. But he also injects some moments that are so horrific and squirm-inducing, they’re downright Cronenbergian.
Although its title suggests a sense of direction, “Upstream Color” defiantly eschews a traditionally linear narrative format; it moves ahead in time but in an elliptical, hypnotic way. And Carruth’s rhythmic style of editing draws you in and keeps you hooked even when it may not be entirely clear what you’re watching. He’s technically meticulous but the results are dreamlike.
Which brings us to the matter of describing what “Upstream Color” is about. Partly because I won’t even begin to pretend that I understand it all, and partly because I don’t want to give too much away, I will be as vague as possible while still hoping you’ll give it a try, if you’re up for something different. If it’s helpful – and it’s not, really, it’s intentionally obscure – here’s the official description from the film’s press materials in its entirety: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”
OK, let’s start there, shall we?
Kris (Amy Seimetz, showing bravery and great range) and Jeff (Carruth himself, quick-witted and impulsive) find themselves strangely intrigued by each other while riding the same commuter train every morning. (It doesn’t say so, but “Upstream Color” takes place in Dallas, and renders its downtown streets and suburban neighborhoods in a quietly anonymous way that’s chilling.) They don’t realize it for a while, but they both have been subjected to scientific experimentation that has damaged their lives, finances and careers, the details of which come back in fleeting wisps of memory.
And so as each struggles to re-establish a feeling of identity and security individually, they dare try to forge something meaningful and lasting with each other. The traditionally romantic, getting-to-know-you elements of the film are the most conventional, but even within them it’s clear that both of these people are still a little fragile and off-kilter.
“Upstream Color” also features, not necessarily in this order: grub worms, financial fraud, blue orchids, long night swims and Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” These are crucial pieces within a puzzle that may be impossible to solve, and Carruth’s synth-heavy score – which, on screen, often comes from a mysterious musician/pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who never speaks – magnifies the sensation of danger and dread.
Carruth’s film ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note, given all that’s come before it. What it means exactly will be open for interpretation just like everything else. But the artistry on display is indisputable, and thrilling.