Review: Upstream Colour (2013)

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Director: Shane Carruth
Screenwriter: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Meredith Burke, Andreon Watson & Kathy Carruth
Runtime: 96 min // Certificate: 12

It’s always near-impossible to judge a film like this on a first watch. Just like Carruth’s debut feature Primer, Upstream Colour is a film that refuses to conform to simple cinematic conventions; character arcs – forget it! A simple story – dream on! A coherent narrative structure – do one, simpleton! It is a film that forces the audience to think, to engage with the material and to approach it in a personal manner; it asks not what the film is about but what it means to you, the viewer. As such, it’s often difficult to ascertain whether it’s a work of genius or a pile of pretentious garbage (or perhaps both) without throwing caution to the wind and watching it again.

So, first impressions… well, it’s ambitious. There are flickers of brilliance in there, no question about it, and it expands on the themes explored in Primer – those of identity and humanity – with little care for the audience’s desire for a less opaque style of storytelling. It flickers from one scene to the next, seamlessly but pointedly, with either an intricate sense of structure or no grasp of basic technique whatsoever, such is its stubbornness to conformity. For 96 minutes it flirts with multiple set-pieces, chops them up, repackages them in an all but impenetrable order and then asks you to pick your way through the subsequent anarchy.

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Despite this, however, Upstream Colour isn’t a complete brainfuck. Such is the strength of Carruth’s grasp of the central concept that though you can never quite tell exactly what’s going on, you still have a vague idea of what it’s trying to say. At its heart it is a purely metaphorical film; it explores themes and ideas rather than stories, so the lack of characterisation, the opaque nature of the tale and the ultimate lack of closure aren’t a huge problem because it’s not as though there’s a lack of substance. Far from it, Upstream Colour is – if nothing else – a film brimming with ideas. The execution might be purposely baffling though that certainly doesn’t mean that the film lacks depth; for all of its confusion and its pretention, it at least has a lot to say.

Now, the plot of the film seems to go like this: a parasite that looks a little bit like a maggot is extracted from the ground and used to control the actions of the people it infects. A woman (Kris, played by Seimetz) is injected with the parasite and then manipulated by a man into giving him all of her money. Another man (Sensenig) uses sounds to extract the parasites from the ground so he can investigate them. Kris is attracted by the sound, visits the man and has the parasite removed from her body. It is transferred from her into a pig. Then her memory is wiped. Sometime later she meets – and falls in love with – a man (Jeff, played by Carruth) with whom she makes a connection. The two of them are linked in some way; they seem to share memories, experiences; perhaps a shared history. More pigs are involved, though I’m not sure why. As the film reaches its denouement the pieces of the puzzle start to come together, dreamlike, more metaphorical than literal. Then it ends…

Yeah… still with me? So on paper it all sounds a bit crazy. On the screen it’s even more impenetrable yet Carruth does a great job of capturing your attention. I sat there for 96 minutes in utter bewilderment, yet thanks to some beautiful direction and cinematography, I just couldn’t turn away. The film plays out in such a manner that no matter how lost you are you might just find something to keep you engaged. Personally, the general themes of the piece are what kept me entertained. I’m a sucker for parables about identity and what it is that makes us human, so I found much to enjoy in that particular narrative thread.

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Nevertheless, this is my first watch and I’m not completely convinced by everything the film offered. There were moments that felt too ridiculous, almost as though Carruth couldn’t quite rein himself in when it really mattered. All of the visuals look great but some of them add nothing to the film, while the constant moping and moaning of the two main characters – neither of whom are all that likeable in the first place – was, at times, a bit overbearing. As the plot began to fall into place I couldn’t help shake the feeling that this would have worked much better as a short, half-hour film, rather than a feature. It sometimes descends into repetition – the entire middle act could have been over and done with in about five minutes – which has the adverse effect of dragging you out of the drama, while I felt a distinct lack of emotional investment in the love story, which I found tedious and cold.

Upstream Colour won’t suit everyone’s tastes. It has little time for conventional structures and it often skirts a bit too close to the “all style, no substance” line but regardless of this I still found it enjoyable. Its biggest success is that it sticks with you for some time after the credits have rolled and makes you want to watch it again. Fair enough, it sometimes feels like a Malick / Lynch rip-off but Carruth includes enough personal touches to give his film a personality. I’m not sure it possesses all of Primer’s originality but it’s still a decent film, all things considered. Just make sure you have the time and patience to devote all of your attention to it because if you look away for more than a few seconds, you might just lose the thread completely.