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With: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke, Andreon Watson, Ashton Miramontes, Myles McGee, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Kerry McCormick, Marco Antonio Rodriguez, Brina Palencia, Lynn Blackburn
Written by: Shane Carruth
Directed by: Shane Carruth
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English
Running Time: 96
Date: 26/04/2013

Upstream Color (2013)

4 Stars (out of 4)

In a Pig's Eye

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writer/director Shane Carruth's brilliant debut Primer (2004) was brainy, complex, and elliptical, but it could be described, at the very least, as a time travel movie. Now his long-awaited follow-up, Upstream Color, is likewise brainy, complex, and elliptical, but also not so easy to describe.

I think I have an idea of what happens in Upstream Color, but I don't think I'll go into it in any great depth, perhaps until some later date. Carruth uses a kind of dreamy, almost wandering camera a bit like Terrence Malick's, but it also seems more purposeful. It's not looking for some vague notion of connectivity. It feels more specific. Carruth's editing and sound design is also deliberately mismatched, slippery, ungrounded, but still offers fleeting ideas, feelings, and notions that can be grabbed at any point.

The movie begins with a crime. A man -- known only as "Thief" (Thiago Martins) -- goes to a nursery and buys some plants, not for the plants, but for a particular kind of soil they have been potted in. He's looking for little grub worms in the soil. He isolates them, throwing away the plants and soil, and begins "processing" them. Apparently, these have mind-altering properties and can leave people open for a kind of hypnotic suggestion.

The man doses a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), with the chemical and begins performing weird little experiments with her, making her copy pages of Thoreau's Walden, stacking checkers in geometrical patterns, and rewarding her with water that he has described as exceptionally tasty. Eventually he gets her to sign away her house. She loses her job and is left to start over from nothing.

Apparently, some time later, she has found a job in a sign shop (making signage). She meets Jeff (Carruth) on a train and Upstream Color turns into a relationship drama. Carruth depicts the slow, unsteady rise of the love affair, as well as its many bumps and breakthroughs. Jeff reveals that his work situation is unusual: he had been caught illegally transferring funds, but his employers are still keeping him onboard, though off the books. Walden comes back into play, in two rather haunting scenes.

There's a third section to the movie, which is even more opaque. We meet a character called "The Sampler" (Andrew Sensenig), who is shown raising pigs, but also (supposedly) taking care of Kris when she escapes -- or is released -- from the Thief's clutches. The Sampler is seen recording various sounds, like a rock sliding down the inside of a water pipe, and also seen wandering around staring at various people who don't seem to notice him.

I don't want to say any more, but there's an ending that suggests something more sinister afoot. Also, I want to add that the relationship drama couldn't exist without the previous section. If not for this section, Jeff and Kris couldn't have met or connected in such an intense, obsessive way.

What's truly strange about the movie is just how compulsive it is, and how incredibly easy it is to get sucked into the mysteries and rhythms. It's both intensely focused and free-flowing, lucid. It feels designed to be in whatever specific moment is happening right now, while the rest of it starts to drift away; the feeling is a bit like flying, perhaps like a bee, darting from flower to flower, focused for a moment at a time. My first reaction upon finishing it was, "I'm not sure I understood that, but I can't wait to see it again."

That's the key, I think, to both of Carruth's films. They are intensely intelligent and they do require a bit of work, but they don't feel like work. So many films that have something to say feel like classroom exercises, and critics often behave like teaching assistants, coaxing viewers into experiences that will be good for them. Very few movies actually invite us in, meet us halfway, or offer us something. Upstream Color does that in such a unique, singular way that it's unlike almost any other movie I've ever seen. I think it's a great film that will not only deserve re-watching, but will actually invite it.

The movie's release pattern has been peculiar, at best. It played at Sundance and SXSW to great acclaim, but apparently it is being self-distributed. The week it opened in San Francisco's Roxie theater, I received a DVD/Blu-ray combo disc in the mail from NewVideo, which is how I watched it (the Blu-ray version). I'm not sure how people from small towns will be able to see it until the video version makes the rounds (May 7), but I hope they seek it out. The DVD and Blu-ray don't offer much in the way of extras, other than some trailers, but the movie itself is more than enough.

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