upstream color

Writer/director/actor Shane Carruth made a huge splash with his debut film Primer at Sundance way back in 2004. That film’s mix of complicated yet grounded science fiction and low-key character work endeared it to audiences who were willing to put the mental work in needed to understand the extraordinarily obtuse plot. Carruth has remained silent for the nine years since. But at this latest Sundance, he made a return with Upstream Color, and it brings back everything that people loved about his first film in full force. It’s odd, it’s smart, and it will most likely reward future viewings. But it’s also a big step forward over Primer, and one of the best movies to premiere at this year’s fest.

Amy Seimetz plays Kris, whose life is upended after a criminal steals all her savings using a drug that makes the victim highly susceptible to suggestion. She’s left with an odd feeling of emptiness inside, which is only fulfilled when she meets Jeff (Carruth), who has been a victim of the same drug. They fall in love, marry, and try to settle for a happy ending. But unbeknownst to either of them, that drug was actually the derivative of some kind of foreign organism, and they are both now connected to that organism. As it goes through its life cycle, both Kris and Jeff suffer inexplicable emotional and mental upheavals, and together they struggle to preserve both their sanity and their relationship.

That synopsis is not entirely clear from the film itself. It takes some thought, some connecting the dots, and some gleaning based on the details that it doles out to the viewer. Like in Primer, Carruth abstains almost entirely from any kind of conventional exposition. You never notice how often a movie will have a character say something that they don’t really need to say, solely for the benefit of the audience, until you watch a film that refuses to do so. The result is that understanding what’s going on requires that you truly pay attention to what is shown, and to sometimes draw your own conclusions. After just one viewing, I’m not entirely sure how to explain everything that happened in the movie.

And yet some critics have called the movie impossible to understand or the like, which is not true at all. While it does require patience and a a willingness to accept some elements that seem ridiculous on their surface (such as repeated trips to a farm housing pigs who are also connected to the organism and thus the protagonists), “getting” the movie is a relatively straightforward accomplishment. And that applies on both a logical and emotional level.

This isn’t just a movie about two people caught up in some creature’s weird life cycle. It’s a story about love, relationships, and overcoming trauma. Kris and Jeff are both people broken by being violated, but they complete each other. And they are able to work through what’s happened to them by facing it together. The organism (which, significantly, lives as a parasitic creature, within people) is a symbol of their pain. The periods of difficulty that they suffer in their bond mirror real-world problems that any couple might face (emotional distance, illness, the inability to conceive children). While on its surface, it’s a series of enigmatic scenes that threaten to baffle, if you read Upstream Color properly, you discover a beautiful look at love as a healing force.

That beauty is also infused into every frame of the film. Visually, Carruth (who did the cinematography and editing) has improved by leaps and bounds since Primer. The movie has an incredibly clean, almost antiseptic image, full of crisp but muted colors. It lends the perfect edge of unreality to everything that happens, as much of the story takes place from the slightly unreliable perspective of Kris and Jeff.

Seimetz and Carruth are fantastic, both conveying reams of emotions and experience with nothing more than their eyes. They have to tell an entire love story together, and they pull it off. By the end, Seimetz cradling a piglet in her arms is a heartbreakingly wonderful thing to see (it makes sense in context), and the fact that the movie can sell it is evidence of its brilliance.

Upstream Color is science fiction at its best, using a far-out concept to explore emotions rather than something more remote or conceptual. If you keep an open and sharp mind, you’ll be rewarded with something lovely and unique. And it makes me hope that it isn’t another nine years before we see another film from Shane Carruth.