Upstream Color is a Beautiful and Obtuse Puzzle

upstream-color

Sometimes when God closes a door, he opens a window. This always struck me as an odd saying, especially with the whole forced entry implication. In my case, the door was the new Bill Murray flick Hyde Park on Hudson, which slammed in my face with such speed that the cartilage of my nose rocketed into my brain and destroyed my frontal lobe. It’s pretty rare for me to not be able to get into a movie, but after 20 minutes of forced romance and blaring soundtracks, I couldn’t take it.

So, I turned to Netflix, which given their selection is like turning to Troma for classy, high-brow film making. But surprisingly, I found something, something really damn good in fact.

Upstream Color PosterUpstream Color, the new film by Primer writer/director/star Shane Carruth, is one of those movies that had to have the most insane pitch session ever. Our protagonist, Kris, is a young woman who’s been dosed with this weird tapeworm type thing that puts its host into an extremely suggestive state, which her attacker uses to drain her of all her financial assets. After getting the tapeworm removed and placed inside a pig by a mysterious sound-sampling sweater enthusiast, Kris tries to piece her life together again, helped by Carruth’s Jeff, who’s undergone the same ordeal. But as time goes on, Kris and Jeff discover their shared experience has more side-effects than they initially thought.

Of course, all of this is something the viewer has to observe and piece together for themselves. Upstream Color is a movie that doesn’t hand-hold at all, and in fact slaps your hand away and yells to stop crowding it whenever you try. It’s incredibly obtuse and vague, meaning that if you can’t figure out what’s going on, you’ll probably be bored to death. But if you can manage to follow everything, it’s like solving a rubik’s cube, and you get this feeling of accomplishment and the desire to show it off to your friends and be all smart and proud of yourself.

The film tries to thwart you in this joy as much as possible. The narrative and editing are both more fractured than a china cup that’s been run through a dryer. Continuity editing? Fuck continuity editing, this movie has an intense disdain for continuity. Conversations will seemingly take place in 3 or more locations, with dialogue often playing over shots of something other than the speaker. Months or more will go by between scenes with little or no indication that time has passed beyond the occasional changed hairstyle. Oftentimes the path between A and B will be either nonexistent or incredibly vague, like how Kris just happens to find the sweater-wearing man who removes her tapeworm in a field. Later on, when the film starts dabbling in expanding consciousness and shared memories, things get even more vague.

The camera work furthers the film’s agenda of keeping you confused as hell too, almost everything is shot in closeups, and where some films would start a scene with a wide establishing shot of the location, Upstream Color scoffs at that kind of conventional crap and more often opens with serene closeups of objects strewn about the location. The impression overall, in the camera work, editing and story, is that we’re never seeing the whole picture, just fragments of it, little pieces we have to connect ourselves to create a whole.

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Of course, this kind of approach really isn’t for everyone, but I’m one of those show-off film nerd types who’s used to reading between the lines and interpreting shit, even if it that usually means reading WAY too much into z-list sci-fi movies and 80s action flicks, but either way I was totally engrossed for most of the way.

The only aspect of the film I’d call really good and not outright great is the acting. The only real characters are Kris, Jeff and the mysterious Sampler, and even calling the Sampler a character is pushing it. Amy Seimetz does a really good job as Kris, playing someone who’s been emotionally and mentally destroyed really convincingly. Carruth himself was a bit less convincing, however, and I only ever partially cared about him as a character. Partially this is because his role is mostly to follow Kris around looking confused when she’s going all loopy. But all the same, he never totally convinced me that there was actually a character to his character, beyond stubble and dress-shirt/sweater combos. Andrew Sensenig has almost nothing to do as the Sampler and as a result he’s barely a blip on the radar.

It should also be noted that Carruth also composed the soundtrack, which would smack vaguely of showing off, but it’s a damn good soundtrack so I can’t really complain. It’s mostly ambient music, really long steady notes and such, and the film probably wouldn’t have half as much atmosphere if not for it.

Upstream Color is probably going to end up on a lot of critics’ top ten lists for the year, myself included. It’s the kind of movie types like us love, vague and cryptic, but once you figure it out, it’s wordlessly gorgeous and touching. To casual movie fans it will probably come off as slow moving, self indulgent and dull, but no matter what camp you’re in, give it a try.

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