‘Upstream Color’ movie review


Still of Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color. (erbp)
April 18, 2013

The good news is: Shane Carruth is back.

The bad new is: Shane Carruth is back.

The oddball auteur of the polarizing 2004 “Primer” — an arthouse take on time travel that the former engineer and self-taught filmmaker wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in and wrote the music for — has just released his second film, which he has also micromanaged to a fare-thee-well. (Somebody teach this guy to delegate.)

Like that earlier movie, which inspired both cultish devotion and a chorus of confused what-the-hecks, “Upstream Color” will bring unmitigated delight to some while infuriating others. For a certain group of people in the middle, it may even manage both simultaneously, inducing head-scratching consternation even as it confirms Carruth’s standing as one of the most brilliant, if obtuse, artists of today.

I think I fall in the third category, though it’s hard to know. Since I walked out of that theater, certainty has never seemed more elusive.

One thing’s for sure: I liked “Upstream Color” much more than “Primer.”

That’s not to say I understand it. The movie, which concerns a couple played by Amy Seimetz and Carruth, follows a bafflingly fragmentary narrative involving narcotic grub worms and vaguely disturbing surgical experimentation incorporating pigs and human beings. Bizarrely, it ends where it begins — with the cultivation and harvesting of the aforementioned psychotropic insects by an unscrupulous thief (Thiago Martins) — suggesting a timeline that is not linear but endlessly, maddeningly circular.

From a visual standpoint, it’s beautifully told, evoking both dreamlike horror and a kind of spiritual wonder. I don’t know what Carruth intended — and I’m not sure he does either — but “Upstream Color” gets into an area that feels very much like religion, and in a way that Terrence Malick’s similarly fragmentary and more heavy-handed “To the Wonder” tries to, and fails. To the extent that Carruth’s story is about anything, it seems to be about an ageless mystery that has a lot to do with the nature of existence and identity, and with meaning itself.

After Kris (Seimetz) is kidnapped, drugged, robbed, operated on and fired from her job (in roughly that order), her memories start to become dislodged — except for passages from Thoreau’s “Walden,” which she can recite by heart. Then, she meets and falls in love with Jeff (Carruth), who may be a victim of the same Mengele-like lab that has done — well, what exactly has it done? — to Kris. His memories start to blur together with hers, while the two of them share a strange, possibly justifiable, paranoia.

It’s all very confusing, and rapturous.

Attempting to untangle or even articulate the plot of “Upstream Color” feels like banging your head against the wall. It isn’t science fiction so much as myth.

Should you see “Upstream Color”? A better question may be: How many times should you see it? As Carruth told Entertainment Weekly, he’s tickled to have made yet another movie that no one can digest in a single viewing. “[A]s far as being able to see movies over and over and realize, Oh, there’s something else in there? I like that,” he said.

He’s right about one thing. There’s something else in there.

rr ½

Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains some disturbing images, sensuality and drug content. 96 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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