Mark Reviews Movies

Upstream Color


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Shane Carruth

Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 4/5/13 (limited); 4/12/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 12, 2013

I almost dread to explain the details of the plot of Upstream Color. It's not for fear of spoiling the movie (It almost demands a little spoiling, just so one may start off with an advantage in obtaining his or her grip on the movie) but for fear that it will sound silly, and it's not a worry that it will sound silly to you but to me. The concept walks a fine line between being worthy of appreciation and being prone to ridicule, and a literal retelling of its story could threaten to be the nudge that sends it to the other side of that line.

It's a movie of solemn silliness but not, fortunately, silly solemnity. If that circular argument makes sense, then we are already past describing the movie's tone. Indeed, we are well on our way to deciphering the central puzzle—and the only one of any real import—of writer/director Shane Carruth's frustrating but sometimes entrancing, emotionally stunted but sincere, and, above all else, strange tale of mind-controlling larvae, porcine telepathy, and two characters who would likely have nothing to do with each other, save for two other characters whose experiments with an anomaly of nature intentionally—in the case of one—and accidentally—in the case of the other—damage the lives of the movie's oblivious protagonists.

The first man of mystery is known only as the Thief (Thiago Martins). We first see him disposing of handmade chains of paper under the watchful eye of a local boy who follows the man to his home. There, the Thief investigates the soil of plants, searching for a specific type of larva, over which he proceeds to pour a liquid. He tests the mixture on local kids, who wind up doing a seemingly choreographed routine of gestures. The Thief's experiments completed, he begins his hunt.

His target is Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman he spots at a bar. He drags her into the alley and forces her to ingest one of the larvae through an oxygen mask. For an unspecified period of time, he conducts a series of psychological suggestion exercises, making her write out pages of Thoreau's Walden and folding the pages to form the links of a chain like the ones we see him disposing of in the opening scene. He compels her to avoid looking at his face by telling her it's made of the same material as the sun. He controls her intake of water by assigning it as a reward for completing the tasks he asks of her.

By the end of his stay at her home, he has forced her to transfer all of her money and the equity of her house over to him in accounts at various banks all over town. Broke and unemployed after not showing up at work, Kris' problems are just beginning, and she cannot remove the thing crawling underneath her skin, even when she tries digging it out with a butcher knife.

Enter the second mystery man, known as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig). He's a composer, collecting sounds from sources like rocks falling upon metal or the hum of a telephone poll, and a farmer of pigs. He also goes out at night with massive speakers playing a loud droning sound. Upon hearing it, Kris follows the noise, and the Sampler performs an operation to transplant the larvae from her to a sow.

If one were to think that this must be the full extent of how bizarre Carruth's story gets, one would be grossly mistaken. There is a short break from the peculiar science-fiction elements, which Carruth presents in as straightforward a way as possible, with the introduction of Jeff (Carruth). He and Kris, who now has shorter hair and seems worn out, begin a hesitant romance, but there is something off about both of them. They recite the words of courtship, but the feeling isn't there. Whether that decision is intentional or not (It's more than likely that it is), it's difficult to become involved in their story, especially as Carruth begins a repetitious series of images (some of them of sparse beauty, like as they which a flock of birds orbiting the couple overhead) and statements that, like the ultimate result of the origin of the larvae (a paradoxical circle of life), goes around in circles. The connection between them is the key to the bigger riddle here, so it's unfortunate their relationship feels so stilted. It actually becomes more impactful when tied to another couple—two pigs mourning the slaughter of their piglets, which sends Kris and Jeff into an inexplicable (to them at least) fit of panic.

Later on, Jeff reveals that he had gotten in some potentially serious legal trouble over stealing money from a company for which he worked. Our minds immediately make the connection to the Thief, then to Kris, and finally to the Sampler. Carruth refuses to hand-hold, but there's an unflappable confidence to his method that keeps us involved even when we're scrambling to put the pieces together. Upstream Color is an admirable workout for the mind that regrettably falls short—try as it might—in offering the heart a similar trial.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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