Upstream Color (2013) — Image via

Upstream Color

Directed by Shane Carruth (2013)

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a film about bodies, noises, colors, identity, agency, science, and violence. It is also a love story between two deeply damaged people, who may also be two pigs. Carruth’s film — which he wrote, directed, produced, scored, photographed, and acted in — is chock full of ideas, images, and stories, and it is clearly meant to be not so much watched as experienced.

At the beginning of Upstream Color, we are introduced to the Thief (Thiago Martins), who collects worms from under orchid plants, stuffs them into capsules, and then heads out to a nightclub where he tries to pass them off as recreational drugs. When that plan fails, he pulls out a Taser and attacks Kris (Amy Seimetz), a video editor to whom viewers have been introduced a bit earlier. The Thief forces Kris to ingest one of the capsules, which places her in a state of hypnosis. In between convincing Kris to clean out her bank account and mortgage her house for his benefit, the Thief forces her to copy out lines from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Once he is done with her, she works her way to a field where another mysterious man, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), extracts a worm from her and transplants it into a pig.

Upstream Color (2013) — Image via erbpfilm.comThis procedure seems to return Kris to relative sanity, but at this point, she has lost her job after going missing with no explanation for several days, and she has no money. When we see her again, some time later, she is working a dead-end job in a print shop and still obviously haunted by her experience. On the train one day, a man named Jeff (Carruth) strikes up a conversation with her out of the blue. As Kris and Jeff form a relationship, we eventually gather that Jeff, a former securities broker, has had a similar experience to Kris’s, and while on the surface he seems to have recovered better, he is actually just as haunted as she is.

Interspersed with the scenes of Kris and Jeff’s interactions, we see some more of the Sampler, who spends much of his time — when he is not maintaining his pig farm — in the woods with a microphone, collecting field recordings for some kind of sound art project. The motivations for the Sampler’s behavior are never entirely clear. He seems to be able to peer into the lives of the people whose worms he has removed, and at first, he seems somewhat benign, but he gradually comes to appear more sinister, especially when the pig that was implanted with Kris’s worm has piglets. Without giving away too much, Kris eventually resolves to confront what she believes to be the source of her trauma, culminating in the film’s much-talked-about wordless finale.

Upstream Color (2013) — Image via erbpfilm.comThe anchor of Upstream Color is Seimetz’s performance as Kris. Alternately semi-catatonic, manic and grimly determined, Kris’s response to her victimization — tied though it may be to quasi-biological forces beyond her control — is entirely believable, which is an accomplishment in a film so full of the unbelievable. Another highlight of the film is Carruth’s ambient score, which — probably not unintentionally — sounds like something the Sampler might have cooked up.

Multiple reviewers have accused Upstream Color of being “pretentious.” It is not entirely clear what they think the film is pretending at. Carruth’s visual and narrative style is obviously heavily influenced by Terrence Malick, but unlike Malick’s films, Upstream Color does not feature a voiceover constantly intoning the filmmaker’s philosophical preoccupations. Upstream Color contains a hodgepodge of often simplistic ideas, but that does not mean that those ideas are the “point” of the film. Viewers who are willing to accept the underlying rules of the film’s universe and take pleasure watching and listening as Carruth’s characters grope their way through that universe will be richly rewarded.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.