This is an art-house movie with a capital "A." And you might as well capitalize the "R" and the "T," too, because films don’t come artier than this. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“Upstream Color” is the eagerly anticipated second film from Shane Carruth, an engineer turned self-taught filmmaker. His first movie was 2004’s "Primer," an intriguing, geeky time-travel thriller made for a reported $7,000 — and which won the Grand Jury Prize for drama at the Sundance Film Festival.
Just as he did on "Primer," Carruth wears multiple hats for "Upstream Color": screenwriter, director, editor, director of photography, score composer and star. (Just typing that list tires me out; imagine how he must have felt.)
He has made a film of uncommon beauty, haunting mystery and massive obscurity. No one is going to understand or know exactly what’s happening in the whole movie. And you’re probably not supposed to, though Carruth claims otherwise in interviews.
Here is the plot synopsis, in its totality, from the production notes: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the lifecycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”
Here’s what happens on screen: A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is seemingly kidnapped and drugged by a man (Thiago Martins) who covertly has her ingest a maggot (or maybe it’s a grub worm) which then multiplies inside her, slithering about just beneath her skin in scenes guaranteed to cause Goosebumps.
This man, identified only in the credits as The Thief, also steals all of Kris’ money and her house. And he has her undergo some sort of crude medical procedure in which she exchanges blood or another body fluid with a pig.
When Kris comes out of all this, she’s a shattered wreck, a sort of walking human shell with apparently no memory of exactly what happened. Then she meets Jeff (Carruth), who may have gone through a similar experience, and they become romantically involved.
Meanwhile, another major character keeps popping up who’s simply identified as Sampler (Andrew Sensenig). He wanders around sampling and listening to natural sounds (rain, stones on metal, pigs snuffling, etc.) with a recorder and tending to pigs on a pig farm.
Carruth also tosses in lots of scenes of nature, filling the screen with fields, orchids, water and pigs. There are also many snuffling porkers, be they big, little, pink or muddy. And several characters read and quote from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden, or Life in the Woods,” the 19th-century New England bachelor’s treatise on nature and self-sufficiency.
What does it all mean? That none of us are in control? That human contact and love are what matters? That we’re all connected to nature? Or maybe it’s all some sort of hallucinogenic dream or, possibly, we’re inside Kris’ mental breakdown?
Take your pick. Probably a little of all of those and a whole lot more.
What’s fascinating is how well the movie works despite its willful opacity. One is never bored watching “Upstream Color,” especially during the first half, which is filled with images that shock. Unlike Terrence Malick‘s forthcoming "To the Wonder," another impressionist film that never explains itself and lays on the nature imagery with a heavy hand, Carruth’s film manages to draw a viewer in rather than leaving one feeling excluded from some sort of personal reverie.
Seimetz, a director herself (the forthcoming “Sun Don’t Shine”), has an Everywoman face, but one that’s sharp and anxious beneath its placid blandness. Her Kris is all emotion, trying to save herself even as she has no idea who or what, if anything, might be trying to do her in.
For some viewers, “Upstream Color” will be an uphill struggle. But many others will find themselves alternately fascinated, repelled and excited by it.
Carruth clearly thinks that a film can communicate big ideas without its actually articulating and spelling them out. It remains for the rest of us to catch up to and begin fully to comprehend his new language.