I have been touched by intestinal worms. Wait, let me rephrase. Intestinal worms have touched me. Wait... No, that’s accurate. I spent half of Upstream Color’s mesmerizing running time in absolute awe that Shane Carruth’s ethereal examination of love, trauma and human connection revolves entirely around intestinal worms. It’s a notion that defies comparison to films before it, evoking at first the body horror of David Cronenberg but capturing instead, finally, a new kind of cinematic rapture. If there’s anything like Upstream Color, I haven’t seen it.
Shane Carruth broke into the independent filmmaking scene with 2004’s time travel puzzle box Primer, about two enterprising entrepreneurs who develop one-way time travel in their garage, and wind up in a complex fractal of intersecting timelines in which cellular phone towers call into question the fragility of reality itself. Primer is a densely layered motion picture, but a film of nearly pure intellect. Upstream Color, his follow-up, is a beast of nearly pure emotion, a 96-minute therapy session where discomforting symbology and gross human abuse create a framework for powerful, all-consuming love.
Thiago Martins has discovered a strange breed of maggots, culled from the soil of flowers at a local shop, with strange properties. Splashing water over them, and sharing that water with another, forms a temporary psychic bond between individuals. When swallowed, Martins has discovered, they make people incredibly susceptible to mental suggestion. Martins has a use for these unnamed critters, and a perverse, monotone system that leaves a young woman named Kris, played by Amy Seimetz, a tattered human being with deep emotional and physical scars.
Kris enters, almost unwillingly, into a romantic relationship with Jeff, played by Shane Carruth himself, and together they begin to piece together something like a life. But their pasts have left them frayed, emotionally disconnected, prone to inexplicable behavior. They frighten each other, spend nights cowering in a bathtub hiding from unknowable personal demons, but their universe is uniquely theirs. Despite their baggage, and perhaps psychosis, Kris and Jeff form a truly believable romantic connection. They are lost in an alien world, but they are ineffably linked, and treat each other’s delusions with a mixture of curiosity, fear and – most of all – absolute acceptance. Their demons are real. Because their demons are real.
Elsewhere, and throughout all of Upstream Color, Andrew Sensenig plays an unknown figure. He owns a pig farm. He records the sounds of leaves and rocks falling in various locales around his property. He has a tendency to walk past Kris and Jeff without them knowing, and his behavior has a strange impact on their lives. Perhaps the lives of dozens more. All is made crashingly clear in Upstream Color, but the discovery of these connections is an indelible part of its power to entrance, and make you believe in the greater interconnectedness of lovers and, perhaps, on some level, all things.
There are scenes, moments and images in Upstream Color that have not been captured on film before, but beneath them lies an unmistakable truth that may not have been uttered in your ear before, yet will be recognized anyway. In its weirdness, its uniqueness, Upstream Color briefly captures the universal. It is the most original and believable love story in years, touching and terrifying. With intestinal worms.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.