Without a Philosophical Paddle: Upstream Color

Upstream Color, like auteur Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer, is science fiction not for the faint of intellect. But where Primer tested the audience’s ability to keep track of things strictly on an organizational basis, Upstream Color is a challenge to one’s ability to simultaneously keep track of physics, poetry, and philosophy. There’s no story as one customarily thinks of it, with characters and dialogue and three acts and so on; Carruth builds Upstream Color from a series of signifiers, with the meaning coalescing from the patterns in which he arranges them. The result is a work of great skill, and very much not run-of-the-cinematic-mill, yet still somehow a little less than the sum of its parts.

The execution is not the problem. Carruth builds Upstream Color like a puzzle that the film’s subjects (since they’re not really characters, at least not literally, or not necessarily literally) figure out at the same pace as the audience does. It opens with a mysterious man farming worms, whose hallucinogenic properties lend themselves to drugs, which cause the taker to become extremely susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. A woman named Kris happens across his path, and suddenly life is no longer as she’s known it. Cut off from everything she’s ever been and known, she encounters a man named Jeff, who, it turns out, has been through something similar, maybe even the same thing.

As Upstream Color unfolds, it becomes clear that, more than a story, linkages are being established between pairs of people, with human beings and these worms, with the worms and pigs—who, in turn, individually parallel human beings we encounter over the course of the movie—and with orchids. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden pops up with some frequency, though there’s an apparent bit of a textual disconnect between the way it’s used to parallel the action onscreen (more on which in a bit). Tension builds, while little if anything is ever directly stated as true, or not, a metaphor, or reality. And then the movie ends.

In spite of Carruth’s glaringly obvious talent, and the immense ambition (both cinematic and intellectual) on display, that talent and intent never coalesce into anything quite as profound as he seems to find it. Upstream Color lays out multiple strata of existence with about as much clarity as is possible in a work as oblique as this, which overwhelmingly alludes rather than states. But once it does this, it’s a little unclear why it’s all been laid out like this. It shares a preoccupation with the connectedness of all things with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, without that picture’s wild, florid, insane sweep, but also without the clarity of purpose.

It’s one thing to (nobly, I might add) resist the thudding, ponderous narrative/thematic spoon-feeding all too prevalent in mainstream filmmaking. It’s another entirely to go so far beyond obviousness as to become nearly completely opaque. A lot of people have been talking about not “getting” Upstream Color the first time around, thinking that there must be something more to the Thoreau and the worms and the pigs and the random people who show up for a scene or two and then disappear. There may very well be. But if all there is to Upstream Color is a nicely constructed, allusive thing about the interconnectedness of all things and how that helps people transcend personal trauma, I’m not entirely sure that’s enough.

The main problem with that being all there is here, if that is indeed all there is here, is that these are not particularly new or rarely expressed ideas. Carruth, in a way, works against his own interests here, because he’s so awesomely skillful at creating cinematic tension and bringing audiences into his intensely inquisitive mindset that, at the end of this mystery investigation of sorts, all the suspense and that incredibly heightened feeling lead one to think “There has to be more to it than this.” That, I think, is a real problem for a movie like this. If there is more to Upstream Color than is apparent on the first go-round, Carruth erred in not making himself clear (and no, not everything needs to be “clear,” but if a filmmaker’s going to be ambiguous, there needs to be a reason for that). If there isn’t more to the movie, it’s a bit half-baked.

All that being said, Upstream Color is worth seeing, if only for the amazing intensity Carruth creates and maintains throughout, and for the staggering beauty of his filmmaking. Even if his text might be a bit blurry here, he’s a fantastic filmmaker, so much so that I actually feel bad, as someone who loves movies, not liking this one more. These things happen. In spite of my not being all that wild about it, I still recommend it to anyone looking for a picture that “goes there,” that swings for the fences, and isn’t exactly like the last ten things they’ve seen. Even a good director’s slight misfires are worth a look, and Shane Carruth is a very good one indeed.


Upstream Color opens April 5th in select cities, and April 12th nationwide.

Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.


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