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1/23/2013

Sundance Review: 'Upstream Color' directed by Shane Carruth




If it were possible to drop kick a film into oblivion and forget it forever, there'd be a pair of size 13's headed in Upstream Color's direction. Nine years ago Shane Carruth set the indie world ablaze with his fascinating sci-fi headscratcher, Primer, and in the time since he apparently has been devising a way to make what can't even be called a film per se. More a series of obtuse moments loosely connected by the most threadbare of plots, it's unfortunately one of those films some will praise merely because they don't want to be left out in the cold.

But this happens all of the time, doesn't it? After tonights' screening of Upstream Color, in which a handful of press and industry folks around me dozed off and others checked their watches hoping the seemingly eternal runtime was drawing to a close, those very same people were out in the lobby saying "I don't know what I saw but I'm sure I liked it". Well, if you don't know what the heck it was, how do you know? If it was just about the pretty pictures, and to be honest the cinematography is lovely and crisp and in a perpetual dreamlike haze that is alluring, then Carruth might as well have gone in front and held up some snapshots. There has to be characters worth investing in, right? Shouldn't there be a story worth putting those characters in that we can understand and judge and bring our own judgements to?

So abstract as to be nearly comatose, Carruth all but tosses plot and narrative into the woodchipper, hoping surreal mood, atmosphere, and banal conversation will suffice. While straining to be complex and expressionistic, Carruth comes off like a poor man's David Lynch, which is never a good look on anybody. After an odd prologue involving powerful hallucinogenic worms, the story begins to follow Kris (a daring and lovely Amy Seimetz), a single woman who finds herself the victim of a hypnotic man who undertakes the most convoluted theft ever. Drugging her via the same worms from earlier, he then proceeds to walk her through an odd series of tasks. He forces her to drink and enjoy glasses of water, make paper origami figures, and memorize Henry David Thoreau's Walden, his novel on nature and personal independence. Still under his power, she withdraws all of the equity in her home, turns over everything to him, then in a grisly operating room sequence, is implanted with some sort of eel-like creature. Oh, and there's a pig involved. Lots of pigs are involved, actually.

What unfolds next is essentially a collection of montages, meant to add layer and texture to this bizarre world Carruth has dreamed up, where a pig farmer known simply as Sampler plays God with our lives from the comfort of his stable. His motivations, like so much of the film, are unclear and answers never come close to being answered. He's just another enigma added to an already muddled picture, which only gets more frustrating and exhausting with the arrival of Jeff (played by Carruth himself), a man who has clearly undergone the same thing as Kris. The two are drawn to one another through some inexplicable means, then proceed to freak one another out as they begin to suspect something larger is afoot. Their relationship, such as it is, is marked by brief repetitive conversation and a lifeless quest for truth. Carruth expects us to care about their journey simply because it's there, but that's just not enough. Just because his film is difficult does not make it good, or worthwhile, or really much of anything.

And truth be told, it's really not all that hard to figure out. Carruth seems to be taking the most circuitous route possible to make a point about overcoming the emotional prisons we confine ourselves in, defeating the factors that control ourselves, and finding a new reality through nature. All fantastic ideas that have been explored in other movies that manage to tell a compelling, relatable story as well.

Because it's such a series of individual moments and not a cohesive whole, Upstream Color never builds to a satisfying conclusion. Hey, the rest of the movie didn't work, so why should the end? There's no doubt that Carruth is at the very least a filmmaker a little out of left field, but he's capable of better, less pretentious movies than this. Hopefully we won't have to wait another nine years for him to prove it.