As mystifying as his 2004 sci-fier, “Primer,” albeit for entirely different reasons, Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” is a stimulating and hypnotic piece of experimental filmmaking. It’s also a poem about pigs, a meditation on orchids, a cerebral-spiritual love story, an intensely elliptical sight-and-sound collage, and perhaps a free-form re-interpretation of Thoreau’s “Walden.” Surely the most challenging dramatic entry at Sundance this year, this unapologetically avant-garde work regards conventional narrative as if it were a not-especially-interesting alien species; the mainstream will take no notice, but adventurous auds are in for a strange and imaginative trip.
“Primer” fans and hardcore art-film devotees will likely be the sole takers for this long-anticipated sophomore effort, which again finds Carruth taking on writing, directing, acting, producing, scoring, lensing and editing duties. He’s even serving as his own distributor this time, with plans to release the picture in L.A. and Gotham in April, followed by a quick transition to repeat-viewing-friendly smallscreen play.
At the center of “Upstream Color” is a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who finds herself an unwitting participant in some exceedingly bizarre experiments. First a thief (Thiago Martins) attacks her and forces her to ingest a bio-engineered worm that brainwashes her into handing over her savings. When the critter starts to replicate inside her body, in scenes that give the picture a brief horror-movie spin, she’s rescued, after a fashion, by an older gentleman identified in the credits as Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who subjects her to a bizarre respiratory treatment involving one of his many farm pigs.
Left with little to no memory of what has happened, Kris finds herself drawn to a young man (Carruth) who seems to have experienced the same ordeal. The two walk and talk, ride the subway, make love and at one point cradle each other in a bathtub. They wander a nondescript-looking city, exchanging dialogue laced with random repetition and impenetrable non sequiturs. Even as their actions and circumstances defy comprehension, a troubling and poignant idea rises to the surface: the universal human compulsion to construct a sense of identity and ascribe meaning to one’s life, to impose order on disorder.
The futility of such a thing may well explain the befuddling, pretzel-like contours of the story; even the most attentive viewers may be hard-pressed to comprehend the significance of the women harvesting orchids, or why Sampler walks around using sound-recording equipment. Peculiar as it all may sound in outline, it’s even stranger to experience onscreen, arranged by Carruth in a complex symphonic framework that variously invokes Malick and Lynch in its narrative illogic, tactile lyricism and possible transmigration-of-souls subtext.
The picture is so densely edited (by Carruth and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” helmer David Lowery) that no single shot seems to last more than mere seconds, which combines with the shallow-focus compositions to produce an experience of near-continual disorientation. Factor in the almost omnipresent synth score, layered under tinkling piano chords, and the film seems to be attempting to induce a state of synaesthesia.
“Walden,” a frequent reference point here, provides a clue as to what Carruth is up to: In its intense levels of visual-aural stimulation, the film is at once transcendent and meditative, and in some ways a call for the sort of inner detox Thoreau prescribed. And since exalted literary works seem to be on the interpretive agenda, the transference of illness to a herd of pigs calls to mind nothing so much as the gospel accounts of Jesus casting out Legion by the Sea of Galilee.
Pretentious or sublime, these ineffable spiritual overtones are finally what make “Upstream Color” so approachable, for all its mysteries: This is a warmer, less foreboding picture than “Primer,” not moving in any conventional sense, but suffused with emotion all the same. One can only imagine what directions the actors were given in order to inhabit roles that seem to splinter and reassemble themselves at will, but Seimetz supplies a quietly haunting presence, particularly in the film’s tender closing fade.
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2013. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — Panorama; New Directors/New Films.) Running time: 96 MIN.
An Erbp release. Produced by Shane Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair. Executive producers, Scott Douglass, Brent Goodman. Co-producers, Meredith Burke, Toby Halbrooks.
Directed, written by Shane Carruth. Camera (color, HD), Carruth; editors, David Lowery, Carruth; music, Carruth; production designer, Thomas Walker; sound, Pete Horner, Chad Chance; sound designer, Johnny Marshall; special effects makeup, Heather Henry; casting, Kina Bale.
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke, Andreon Watson, Ashton Miramontes, Myles McGee.