Intriguing, conflicted, narratively perplexing, and gorgeously lensed, Upstream Color ranks as a hypnotizing mind-bender and reaffirms Shane Carruth as a talent to watch. Carruth is no household name, but he is best known for his 2004 time-travel thriller Primer, a sci-fi debut of great promise. After nine years of silence, which has contributed to his reputation as the Salinger of cinema, Carruth returns with a mesmerizing creation on consciousness and control.
Carruth has been infamously obsessive over every detail of the film and its marketing, shooting it in secrecy around his Dallas home, as well as meticulously crafting the trailer and posters. Written, produced, directed, edited, and composed by Carruth, and starring himself as lead, Upstream Color is unreservedly an independent feature, rumored to cost under $100,000. That would still be almost 15 times the micro-budget of $7,000 spent on Primer.
The story is fascinating yet nearly impenetrable: A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz, Tiny Furniture, The Killing, writer/director of Sun Don’t Shine), is kidnapped and implanted with a worm. Her memory is erased. Another character removes the worm and feeds it into a pig. She awakes to a version of her own life that she doesn’t recognize, and meets a man, Jeff (Carruth), who may have experienced something similar. Together, they attempt to reconstruct their lives, while at the mercy of memories and perceptions that aren’t theirs.
If the above exposition is more confusing than helpful, Upstream Color could be described, alternatively, as a damaged romance and a philosophical romp through a Terrence Malick film set, exploring destiny, free will, manipulation – then ruthlessly edited down to 95 minutes. It combines Malick’s hazy shimmer with the wild symbolism of David Lynch. The cinematography is breathtaking, giving the impression of a production easily worth $1-2 million.
In my review on Holy Motors last year, I wrote that it represented “the work of an artist who refuses to compromise,” with its innovative embrace of multiple genres. The phrase is equally, and perhaps even more suitably, applicable to Carruth’s sophomore achievement. I get the feeling that, upon repeat viewings, it will emerge as a shorter, stranger twist on Inland Empire. I can think of no higher compliment.
Upstream Color is the result of harnessing the currents of an unbridled imagination. It is a perfectly judged, strikingly beautiful film; a lunatic enterprise about the fragility of identity which invites befuddlement and wonder; a true – and truly astonishing – original, and one of the best films of the year.