Upstream Color is a simple story of human connection that is complicated by deliberate nonsense. It is a movie that has a very impressive and unique voice, but wants to hold the viewer at arm’s length, keeping them from connecting with it. An independent in the truest sense, Shane Carruth writes, directs, produces, acts, shoots, edits, scores, fashioned the sound design, even worked as the casting director and production designer. Someone should have told him the cinema was supposed to be collaborative.
It all begins with a series of confusing and dreamlike images. Each one of them is very intriguing, and this intrigue will persist to the end, but like a train, some people will get off at stops earlier than others. How far down the line you allow this movie to take you is completely up to you. The story starts with a drug dealer dealing a substance that has been laced with a worm. That worm is a parasite that takes over your mind and body and makes you susceptible to suggestion. Very susceptible. It’s a form of hypnosis where you will do everything suggested over an extended period of time. What is the purpose of the hypnosis? A scam of course.
The perpetrator of this scam, The Thief (Thiago Martins), uses elaborate suggestions to test how in control of the subject he is. In this particular instance, the subject is Kris (Amy Seimetz) and The Thief eventually gets Kris to clean out her checking and savings account and hand it over to him. When Kris comes to, she find that all of her accounts have been depleted. She challenges the bank, but admits that yes, that is her signature on the withdrawal slips. Yes, that is me on the security cam, closing my accounts… It is me, but it wasn’t me!
Kris accepts the evidence, there is too much to say otherwise. What is interesting is how the worm is introduced to the victims, and in this case, it is introduced to the body through drugs. Kris received the worm because she has a weakness, and gave into that weakness. She probably thinks that she deserves the hand that was dealt to her. Those that drink and take drugs have all had tragic lapses in judgment that have emotionally and financially cost them dearly. This particular scam has cleaned her out, but something in her face tells me that it isn’t the first time something like this has happened.
Kris meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth). He too has lost a lot in his life. They both have the same scars (in the form of stigmata) meaning that they are both victims of the same scam. They are connected in another, very bizarre way, and this is where the movie lost me. A scam is good, two broken people coming together is even better, a pig farmer who breeds maggots and loves ambient sounds is too much. The third act tries to tie all the plot threads together and suggest that the characters have learned and take action. What mental or physical space they inhabit when they take action is up for each viewer to decided, as Carruth keeps it as abstract and ambiguous as possible. It would have worked better if he concretized it. Then the dream like imagery and swirling storytelling would be like a person waking from a drunken haze, their brain slowly coming too, fixating on hard facts, and establishing reality. Maybe that’s the problem, this haze will never lift, and a fixed point won’t be established.
Upstream Color might be about how broken people are attracted to one another, or it might be about how people are connected, or it might be about the forces outside our control that shape and mold us. Upstream Color is not a poorly made movie, it is intelligently conceived and designed, it is shot and edited with a very clever style, and the performances are quite intimate. Too bad that all that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.