Well, I guess my feelings about this film are see-sawing at this point, although I was feeling decidedly negative about it when I went to bed last night. (I chuckled sympathetically at the subject-line of one IMDB review: “Tedious, pretentious and utterly exhausting”.) Upstream Color was made by Shane Carruth, who directed it, wrote it, shot it, edited it, composed the music, and plays one of the main characters. It arrives in the theaters with a certain amount of buzz, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about his first film, Primer (2004), too. It feels very personal, perhaps too personal.
It’s kind of an anti-story, but what is the story it’s struggling against? The science fictional aspect is about a worm that apparently produces a psychotropic substance that allows one person to control another or maybe synchronize their actions with another. This is not explained or discussed or theorized about, so it feels more like a fantasy or work of magical realism than science fiction. Over the course of the film we do see something like a life cycle for these worms, but again nothing is explained and what we see doesn’t actually seem to make a lot of sense when you think about it. Not logical sense anyway. It’s more like a dream or a nightmare.
The story is told in an extremely oblique, elliptical, scattered way. We start off following a guy who collects the worms and who eventually kidnaps a woman named Kris and uses the worms on her. After that we mostly follow Kris as she wanders around in a daze following this harrowing, horrific experience, eventually connecting with a guy named Jeff (Carruth) who has problems of his own that we only slowly learn about. Interspersed with their love story are scenes involving a pig farmer who plays a part in the life cycle of the worms and who also records experimental music.
Dialogue is fragmentary, repetitive, sparse. The flow of images is also fragmentary, mixing bits from different points of time and seeming to mix bits from alternate realities too, or different versions of the story. There’s a strong sense of dread, paranoia, schizophrenia. There’s a strong sense that it’s all about to make sense, but the meaning never quite arrives. At the same time there does seem to be a throughline to the story, and it even has something like a happy ending. Perhaps it makes sense on its own terms, but my initial feeling was that its own terms are ultimately so private and introverted as to be essentially empty.
The paranoid feeling of dread it engenders reminded me at times of Take Shelter (2011), but oddly enough Upstream Color is ultimately less ambiguous than Take Shelter. In terms of visual style and anti-storytelling it also reminded me at times of Last Year at Marienbad (1961), with its genre story chopped up and swirled around into an enigmatic, repetitive melange, except Marienbad never reveals any kind of narrative throughline. It also reminded me at times of Vanishing Waves (2012), with its story of troubled souls struggling to make a connection with each other in a oblique science fictional setting, but Vanishing Waves was less reticent and more emotionally generous. In terms of my frustration with it, I was also reminded of Meek’s Cut0ff (2010), where the attempt at existential profundity struck me as sophomoric. Just keep hitting us over the head with Thoreau’s Walden, Mr. Carruth, and I’m sure we’ll eventually see the light of your brilliance.
Yet like Meek’s Cutoff there were aspects of Upstream Color that I liked, including the sound design and some of the tantalizing scenes that suggest meaning on the horizon. There’s one sequence where the two lovers argue in repetitive, shifting fragments about whether a childhood memory is hers or his. There seems to be real confusion on the point, possibly because the worms cause a psychological synchronization in which two minds become one, but it also feels like a genuine lover’s quarrel that has a playful, bickering side to it. It’s a nicely human moment that also seems to have larger implications. There are other sequences like this that I found very intriguing. Too often, however, it seemed like a morose, turgid slog through somebody’s very personal, internalized confusion, flailing in the direction of meaning and completely lacking in poetic transmutation.