Trickling throughout director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, binding and permeating all of the dreamlike montages, intensely sensual imagery, and dislocated moments, is water. Water brings life, incites desire, slicks the streets with ghostly reflections, carries strange toxins. The water cycle, one of the most seemingly mundane and regular natural occurrences on this blue planet, forms a kind of gate or ring through which the film’s plot passes. To attempt to describe that plot would be to tempt the reader to ignore this falsely sage tiger’s advice: seek out and see this film; Shane Carruth has–to use a flagrantly convenient metaphor–bloomed into an original and intellectual filmmaker.
This much could have been guessed after seeing his first film, Primer, but that film’s execution on a tiny budget and according to a rigorous plan, only proved that Carruth was a master of logistics and steel-trap precise plotting. He was also a promising acting presence. But I, for one, blame my feline instincts for failing to detect what signs, if any, there were that Carruth was more than the sum of his left-brained fascination with complex physics conundrums. Seeing Primer through this new film, I have assumed a new appreciation for that earlier work’s achievements in creating compelling characters and conflicts, dealing with issues about the body and identity that are explored in newly vital ways with Upstream Color.
This plot similarly focuses around two characters and their doubles. It also has a similar fascination with the interaction between scientific and technological ingenuity and its darker side. Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth play the two leads, each of whom has gone through a traumatic change in his or her life. They have been torn from their relatively successful lives and previous narratives, forced to reckon not only with missing memories but also with long-term psychological and physical traces that they attempt to understand. Each is played with appropriately low-key sensitivity, as is their primary antagonist, and with the help of Carruth’s camera and astute scriptwriting and editing, helps us to understand their trials as well.
This is far from a conventional film in terms of technique, though some easy comparisons can and have been drawn in the critical discourse about the film, including Terrence Malick and Krzysztof Kieślowski, the latter of whose Three Colors trilogy seems to be a creative touchstone for Carruth. Sounds wash over cuts and edits, scenes play out multiple times with different results, and the entire screen sometimes washes out into abstract images that, despite their cryptic nature, are key to understanding the story. The entire affair was shot on digital video, and there are few “films” that make better arguments for the vitality and usefulness of this format when in capable hands.
It could be argued that this film aims for–and, I would argue, hits–notes that are too high or too precise and unconventional for most to appreciate. I hope that is not the case. This film is one that you should enter with a mind to be changed, to have your mind and body contorted and challenged. Its rewards are many, and its intelligent, and–lest I fail to emphasize it enough–incarnational probes into the nature of human minds and memories deserve to be shared further.