In 2004 Shane Carruth self-funded his debut feature Primer. Launched at Sundance, the film ended up winning the festival’s Grand Jury award and quickly grew into a cult classic. Carruth put his engineering know how into creating a highly original time-travel film. It wasn’t something I personally enjoyed, but I praised Carruth’s vision and held hope he may one day create something I’ll love. Now, 9 years later, Carruth is back with yet another head-scratching mind-melting trip in Upstream Color.
Upstream Color is focused around a young graphic designer named Kris. Whilst out at a bar one night, Kris is drugged using a nematode by a clever thief and held captive in her own home. Unaware she is a hostage due to the drugs she is on, Kris signs over her entire life savings. She is eventually released, but because she is still under the effect, Kris stumbles onto a pig farm and becomes a human guinea pig for the farm’s owner. Soon after Kris wakes up in a van with no memory of the last week, now she must put her life back together and solve the mystery of her disappearance.
Upstream Color‘s story may be difficult to explain, but on the surface it is relatively simple. Carruth has made the genius move of not holding the audiences hand, he tells the story as if it was real-life instead of needlessly explaining every scene through dialogue. It means the viewer has to concentrate, if you look at your phone for even a second you will miss something hugely important. Carruth’s subtle approach to telling his story will lose a lot of people and makes the film seem pretentious, but by telling the story is a purely visual fashion it uses the medium for what it was intended for.
Where Carruth does complicate things is with the ‘why’. The story is easy to get, but the reasons behind it will leave even the most patient viewer with plenty of questions and a sore brain. It is possible to take away many things or even nothing from Upstream Color, it can be enjoyed as a film and as a work of art. If you dig deep in Carruth’s film you could likely conjure up a very personal meaning. This is a plus to how Carruth’s complicated method of applying meaning could have great benefit to those looking for more, without alienating those that just want to watch a movie.
My biggest gripe with Upstream Color comes from the cast. Yet again Carruth casts himself and a group of friends. The actors here are slightly better trained, but they aren’t exactly professionals and it makes it that much harder to believe in the character and their struggles. When it comes to films of such a tiny magnitude it is easy to overlook the quality of acting, but for me it is hard to overlook in Upstream Color because every other aspect is competent and of the highest quality. Amy Seimetz cold and distant approach to her character Kris is the biggest thing holding the film back.
Shane Carruth is growing into his potential, this is an accomplished second feature from a director still finding his feet and fine-tuning his method of story-telling. Carruth has crafted a much more accessible film that can be enjoyed and admired due to its strong purely visual story-telling, but can also be explored further by those searching for more. It works on a lot of different levels which makes it in a very watchable film that just falls short of greatness due to a couple of casting mishaps. Upstream Color is definitely worth checking out, you may hate it but original cinema always deserves attention.