Upstream Color (2013)

Drama Rated NR

The paranoia that hummed in the background of Primer, Shane Carruth’s lo-fi, sci-fi debut, comes to full flower in Upstream Color, a cryptic drama in which nearly everyone lives under a vague suspicion of personal terror. It’s an uncomfortable watch – and not only because parasitic grubs are part of the convoluted narrative.

Written and directed by Carruth, who also stars, Upstream Color opens on a shadowy figure (Thiago Martins) collecting strange bugs from the bottom of flower pots. They’re used to create a hypnotic drug of some sort, one that this mystery man uses to subdue and kidnap a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) and put her under a spell. After a few days of having her sign over her bank accounts and drink lots of ice water, the man disappears, leaving Kris in a fog, unsure of what happened to her or where her money has gone.

Upstream Color is a cryptic drama in which nearly everyone lives under a vague suspicion of personal terror.

There’s more – let’s just say Thoreau’s Walden is a touchstone, pig surgery comes into play and Carruth eventually appears as a suitor for Kris who seems to live under a similar fog – but I’d rather not give away anything more. Not that further details would explain much. Like Primer, Upstream Color works on its own idiosyncratic wavelength, one that isn’t alienating, but isn’t quite approachable either. Carruth certainly leaves more room for interpretation this time around – much of the confusion over Primer came from the mechanics of its time-travel plot – yet Upstream Color is still one of those movies that’s more than content to leave its audience befuddled.

We’re left, then, to largely appreciate the movie’s form, which is an intricately elliptical collage of sound effects, lighting and, yes, color. As scenes and lines of dialogue begin to loop and repeat, along with sudden insert shots of blood rushing through veins and other biological functions, the film becomes downright experimental, as if a David Cronenberg film and a David Lynch one had been edited together.

That actually makes Upstream Color sound more intriguing than it actually is. I appreciated its audaciousness and creativity, but I can’t say those things compelled me to spend much time unearthing any layers of meaning. Certainly questions of identity and trust and reality are all at play, and in a fairly provocative way. But if Carruth is regarded as an enigmatic genius in some circles, his is a genius largely misunderstood by me.