Writer/director Shane Carruth’s 2004 film, Primer, isn’t just a great time-travel movie; it’s one of the best science fiction films in the history of ever. But, hey, no pressure on the follow-up or anything, Shane. For nearly a decade, cinemaphiles waited for omni-hyphenated actor-editor-musician-producer to create something else, anything else. And just when all hope seemed lost, here comes Upstream Color to act as movie messiah, delivering salvation unto the theater-going masses.
Dense without pretense, abstract but understandable, Upstream Color is a lethal combination of genre ingredients, mixing thriller with arthouse, romance and science fiction. The simple narrative follows Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman randomly abducted by a man (Thiago Martins) using a mind-controlling drug. He destroys her life in a span of a few days, mushing her psyche into a fine paste. Years later, Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), who seems to be the only man willing to cope with her vast slate of inexplicable symptoms. On their first date, she pulls two huge pill bottles from her purse, sets them on the table and proclaims that she “saved them both some time.”
Jeff doesn’t budge. Why? There’s a connection between them that is bigger than either can understand. It involves a sinister figure known only in the credits as “The Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig). Also, it involves pigs and piglets. Out of context, this all sounds quite silly; but in practice, the fable that Carruth weaves allows for philosophical and emotional questions big and small. In grand ways, this is about the nature of love, the role of fate and manipulation by omniscient forces and the struggle to overcome imposed identity, all held together by a gleefully strange narrative thread.
Oh, and it’s beautiful. Carruth’s eye as a cinematographer (yes, he did that too) is just impossibly good. From the way ice spins slowly inside a pitcher of water to close-ups of actors that actually help to further the plot of the film, his camerawork is mesmerizing. So too is Seimetz, whose open-sore-of-a-woman is demonstrably powerful. Although sexual assault never comes into play, the attack on her that starts the film is one of the strongest demonstrations of the true nature of rape ever filmed, and it is harrowing. Thus, her reactions after that inciting incident speak to the recovery of a rape victim, brilliantly forgoing the simplistic revenge fantasy films often dip into for a more genuine and holistic change in personal identity.
Upstream Color has so many brilliant moments they can’t all be catalogued on one viewing. What can be concluded is that Carruth’s sophomore effort reiterates not only his vast array of gifts but his underlying philosophy: you can entertain while challenging, you can produce art that is abstract but not unapproachable, you can infuse big, heady thoughts into emotionally centered content and you can do it all for next to nothing financially. Nobody hopes another 9 years pass before Carruth produces again; but if they do, it will be worth the wait.
Grade = A+