Shane Carruth Challenges Perception with ‘Upstream Color’

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionE-mail page to friendE-mail page to friendPDF versionPDF version
Average: 2.3 (3 votes) Oscarman rating: 4.5/5.0
Rating: 4.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Can a film be more poetry than prose? We’ve certainly seen masterpieces that defy easy plot recap like Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” but Shane Carruth takes the concept a step further with his daring, mesmerizing “Upstream Color,” a work of art that will infuriate as many as it enraptures. Blending “Walden,” science fiction, romance, and issues of control vs. free will, “Upstream Color” is like a classical composition with themes that repeat but no actual lyrics. It’s a film that I wouldn’t blame anyone for hating. However, I can’t wait to talk about it with those who love it like I do.

“Upstream Color” opens with a series of confusing images that set a tone before we’ve even met the lead characters. A man carries papers that have been crafted into strands that look like DNA. He throws them in a bin with a recycling logo. We see bicycle wheels spin, a steering wheel, and the visual motif of circles has been set. It will repeat throughout the film, one that is undeniably about connections and circles of life even though there will be disagreement and discussion as to what, if anything, it says about those connections and circles.

Upstream Color
Upstream Color
Photo credit: Cinedigm

The mysterious man (Thiago Martins) from the opening scenes has developed something breathtaking. He can control others. It is first seen in a series of sequences with a pair of teens who can first mimic each other’s actions with their eyes closed and then in a fight in which each seems to know the other’s movement before it happens. While this discovery of mind control might seem at first to lead to a science fiction thriller, don’t ever try and get ahead of “Upstream Color.” Don’t try and “figure out where it’s going.” Just go with it.

The man who knows how to control others kidnaps Kris (the captivating Amy Seimetz), a girl who seems to have it together before her life is torn apart by a power behind her control (yes, you can start to read themes of faith, religion, and fate into the narrative). The man plays games with Kris like a hypnotist, getting her to think that a pitcher of ice cubes has the bright glow of a sun and moving on to far more life-shattering manipulations like emptying her bank account. And then “Upstream Color” gets really freaky when Kris is somehow forever connected with a pig through the surgical work of The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a man who could be a symbol for God or could represent medical manipulation in society. Yes, I said pig. As in “Babe.”

Upstream Color
Upstream Color
Photo credit: Cinedigm

Her soul perhaps lost to a sty and her money gone, Kris goes on with life, meeting a man named Jeff (charismatically played by Carruth himself) and the two form a relatively straightforward couple during the second act. A viewer may even start to think that “Upstream Color” is going to “straighten out” and become more narratively traditional at this point. That viewer would be wrong.

On a technical level, “Upstream Color” is striking. Carruth didn’t just direct the film, he’s also credited as its cinematographer, provided its mesmerizing score, and co-edited with David Lowery (who directed the great, upcoming “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”). The cohesive vision of the technical elements of “Upstream Color” are essential to its success. Every beat, every cut (the editing is stellar), every note of the score – it all comes together in ways that other filmmakers ignore. They’re more essential ingredients because of the elusive nature of Carruth’s plotting. There are major portions of the film where the score, the way it’s edited, and the beauty of Carruth’s remarkable eye for composition are the characters. They’re instruments in the symphony as much as the Kris, Jeff, or those damn pigs.

Upstream Color
Upstream Color
Photo credit: Cinedigm

As for performance, Seimetz goes through a wide range of emotion and character with less dialogue than most Supporting Actress nominees. I don’t think there’s a single word said for the last half-hour and yet this is a well-rounded, engaging performance. Carruth isn’t quite as memorable but I believe that’s intentional. This is Kris’s story. Carruth often shoots scenes between the two of them with more focus on Kris, never losing the sense that it’s her story. Although he’s never less than believable, proving he could be a charismatic performer in someone else’s work as well.

It sounds clichéd but “Upstream Color” works not unlike the mind control of the grand manipulator of its plot in that it gets under your skin and works its way into your mind. I had a dream about the movie months after first seeing it. And it’s a work that I wasn’t even sure I liked while it was playing the first time (and realized that I loved the second time). It’s so elusive. It’s so bizarre. It’s so cold. It’s so strange. And yet, when it was over, my mind was flooded with strong imagery from it, themes worth discussing, and a strong desire to see it again. It can be frustrating even for a critic like this one willing to embrace films without traditional narratives (when it heads into a montage of sound effects in the middle act, I almost checked out) but it has a cumulative power that pushes against our understanding of what a movie needs to be. I wish more movies would do the same.

“Upstream Color” stars Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Thiago Martins, and Andrew Sensenig. It was written and directed by Carruth. It opens in Chicago tomorrow, April 12, 2013. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

User Login

Free Giveaway Mailing


  • Importance of Being Earnest, The, Strawdog Theatre

    CHICAGO – Just in time for Pride Month, Strawdog Theatre Co. presents an updated staging of the Oscar Wilde classic, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Strawdog policy … the tickets are FREE (donations encouraged), but you must put in a reservation by clicking EARNEST.

  • Prodigal Daughter, The

    CHICAGO – One of the open secrets of Chicago is its horrible racist past, which remains like an echo. Playwright Joshua Allen has been exploring this theme in his Grand Boulevard Trilogy – the last chapter talking place during the infamous 1919 race riots – in Raven Theatre’s “The Prodigal Daughter.” For tickets and info, click TPD.

Advertisement on Twitter

archive Top Ten Discussions