Sundance 2013 Review: Upstream Color

'I do not understand Upstream Color, but I don’t need to.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I wasn’t surprised to see a divided reaction to Shane Carruth’s second film at Sundance. Upstream Color is the type of film that demands a lot of its viewer, and at the end you could feel immensely rewarded or resentful of the experience. What surprised me was how many people didn’t know what they were getting into. At a press and industry screening. I know some ticket holders just buy whatever is available but if you’re in the industry, you have to know. Love it or hate it, but “surprise” is a baffling response to me.

I wasn’t even a fan of Primer, but over the last nine years I’ve matured and opened my mind, so at least I was ready for a challenging film festival experience. If Primer simulated the fragmented time experienced by time travelers, Upstream Color is even less linear. It’s a bit Malick-y in its impressionistic portrayal of scenes and loose plot chronology, but I hate to use a derivative comparison. It’s more Shane Carruth-y, but unless you’ve seen Primer, that won’t help you.

The inciting incident of Upstream Color is bizarre enough for several art films. There is an experiment involving maggots placed under someone’s skin that changes their perceptions. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a film editor who’s nabbed for this experiment, with a lot of surreal instructions for drinking water and solving puzzles. Her kidnapper comes up with a suggestion to keep her from looking at his face, which is poetic in how little it makes rational sense.

By the time Kris is released, she’s lost her job and all her money so the film becomes more about Kris putting her life back together. She works at a sign shop and reluctantly starts dating a very persistent suitor (Carruth). Their first date is striking for her bold and honest display, which is so direct it’s the sort of scene that can only exist in a movie, but when it happens among all this other craziness, it’s the normal and relatable part. Even the real world courtship scenes are not presented as traditional narratives, but rather senses and fragments of impressions. At least those parts were simple enough to glean a character relationship from them, but it’s still an abstract riff on “boy meets girl.”

The glimpses of Kris’s struggle show us the toll this bizarre kidnapping took on her, both internally and physically. That’s a poignant story of recovery, but it’s only part of Upstream Color. Kris is who we latch onto throughout the abstract collection of scenes, and Seimetz gives a strong performance. Her subtle facial ticks while undergoing the experiment illustrate how altered she is, and your heart just opens up for her as she continues to endure afterwards. 

Kris isn’t the sole focus of Upstream Color though, and diversions from her character are equally rewarding. At one point we cut to Jill and Ben having a wonderfully sensitive argument. We’ve just met them and we don’t know what problem they’re having or why they’re suddenly part of this story, but thematically it makes sense given what Kris is going through, and what they say is beautiful. There’s also baby pigs in the movie and baby pigs are adorable.

Carruth doesn’t make it easy to nail down his film in a blurb, or even in several hundred words, but he helps you make connections between different sections of the plot by visually matching scenes. There are lots of shots of legs running, doors closing and even more specific parallel actions. Maybe that’s a key to the order of scenes, or maybe it just looks cool, but I’m fine with that either way.

I’ll admit, I do not understand Upstream Color, but I don’t need to. Every scene worked as a standalone and I can sense the thematic connections and linear chronology should I choose to work at it. And I will choose to work at it. For my first viewing I simply felt: I love what it’s saying, I love how it’s saying it and I hope that’ll be enough for people to join me on this journey so we can compare the experience. 

Sundance 2013 Review: Upstream Color

Photo Credit: erbp

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.