(Minor Spoilers Ahead)
Is Upstream Color, the new film from Shane Carruth, the best film of 2013?
Realistically, it’s probably too early to say. After all, it’s only April and there’s a lot of films waiting to be released. However, it’s hard for me to imagine how a more thought-provoking, haunting, and occasionally frustrating film could be released this year.
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of viewers aren’t going to embrace this low budget, independently made film. Some will dismiss Upstream Color as being pretentious or they’ll incorrectly assume that the film is all about style over substance. Even in this age of Tree of Life and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Upstream Color is not the type of film that’ll be embraced come Oscar time.
But no matter. As of right now, Upstream Color is the best film of 2013.
Director Shane Carruth made his directorial debut in 2004 with Primer. Made on a budget of $7,000 and filmed in my hometown of Dallas, Primer was a low-key but intriguing film about time travel. It was a science fiction film that succeeded not through CGI but through an intelligent presentation of ideas. I have to admit that I’ve watched Primer a handful of times and I still don’t quite understand everything that happens in the film. However, that’s a huge part of the film’s appeal.
The same can be said of Upstream Color.
Playing out like a mash-up of David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick and told through a series of jump cuts, Upstream Color begins with Kris (Amy Seimitz), a successful young woman who is kidnapped by an enigmatic figure known as the Thief (Thiago Martins). The Thief uses a drug made out of orchid larvae to hijack her mind. Once she has given him all of her money, the Thief vanishes while the larva continues to grow in Kris’s body.
A mysterious man identified in the credits as The Sampler (played quite brilliantly by Andrew Sensenig) comes to Kris’s aid. As Kris lies unconscious in a tent, The Sampler cuts the larva out of her body and then puts it into the body of a pig. The pig is set loose in a pen with hundreds of other pigs who apparently carry larvae in their bodies. Kris, meanwhile, wakes up the next morning in her car with no memory of why she’s covered in blood, why she’s lost her job, or why her bank account is now empty.
One jump cut later and suddenly, we see Kris riding a train through downtown Dallas.* We’re not sure how much time has passed but we can see that Kris has changed. With her hair cut short, Kris sits huddled in the back of the train. Also on the train is Jeff (Shane Carruth). Despite Kris’s efforts to be anonymous, Jeff notices her and eventually manages to strike up a conversation with her.
Kris finds herself oddly drawn towards Jeff, especially after he confesses to her that he once stole a lot of money from his employers and he’s not quite sure why he did it. Not realizing that they’re both victims of the Thief, Jeff and Kris fall in love. Fortunately, Carruth and Seimetz have a palpable chemistry. You believe both of them as wounded souls and as lovers. As a result, even as the film gets more and more surreal, you still care about these two characters and their relationship.
While Kris and Jeff fall in love and struggle to understand what happened to them in the past, the Sampler continues to appear throughout the film as a detached observer. Sometimes, he’s recording the sounds of nature. At other times, he’s looking over his pigs. And then, sometimes, he’s just there. For his first few appearances, the Sampler seems to be almost a benevolent figure but, halfway through the film, he performs one action that forces you to reconsider everything that you’ve previously seen him do.
Who is the Sampler and how is he connected to the Thief and Kris and Jeff? This is one of the many questions that the film poses and, quite frankly, the answer is not easy to find. Don’t get me wrong, the answer is there. You just have to be willing to look for it. Carruth, a former engineer, directs with an eye for the reoccurring patterns of nature. (For instance, the curve of the larva in Kris’s bloodstream is later replicated by the sight of Kris and Jeff curled up in each other’s arms.) As opposed to the very verbal Primer, Upstream Color is a film almost totally told through image and, as a result, one has to be willing to be an observant viewer in order to learn the answers to the film’s questions. The film’s final 15 minutes features no dialogue, just images scored to Carruth’s propulsive electronic score. It’s a brave move on Carruth’s part and, even more importantly, it works brilliantly.
As you might guess from reading this review, Upstream Color is not an easy film to understand. As a filmmaker, Carruth emphasizes the surreal and the obscure but, much like David Lynch, he comes up with images that are so haunting that you can’t look away even if you don’t fully understand what you’re seeing. Upstream Color may, at times, be an obscure film but it’s compelling in its obscurity. This is a film that is meant to be seen with four of your smartest friends. This is a film that is meant to be debated and argued about.
In other words, it may very well be the best film of 2013.
*On a personal note, I do have to admit that I loved seeing how much of this movie was filmed at places that I either go to or drive by every single day.