April 13, 2013



UPSTREAM COLOR:  Worth A Ticket – But Not If You Require Coherent Plotting

I’d be lying if I said I really knew what the hell was going on in UPSTREAM COLOR, and yet the experience of watching it was surprisingly enjoyable, even gripping in an odd way.  Watching Shane Carruth’s film (he serves as the co-star as well as writer, director, cinematographer, composer and co-editor), it never feels as though he’s bungled a story that was meant to be clear.  On the contrary, Upstream Color, with all its ellipses and frayed bits of narrative, feels completely assured, the work of an artist who, for better or worse, has made exactly the film he intended to make.

Carruth’s previous film Primer started out as fairly comprehensible low-tech sci-fi (it was produced on a budget meager even by Sundance standards, and won the festival’s grand prize in 2004), then went down a wormhole where it became impossible to follow.  Upstream is an enigma almost from the start.  The events of the first reel can–I think–be explained, more or less.  There is a substance in a certain flower that has the effect, when ingested by more than one person, of bringing those people’s minds together, so that they share the same thoughts and instincts.  It also has powerful mind control properties.  The substance is ingested by the worms that subsist with that flower, and Kris (Amy Seimetz), a film special effects coordinator is forced by an unknown man to swallow a pill containing one of these worms.  Once she has, she passively follows all his instructions, including mortgaging her house, emptying her bank account and also copying down the entirety of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” on pieces of paper which are folded into chains (and then discarded by the man).  When the drug wears off and the man leaves, Kris discovers that there are now worms living under her skin.

After that, it’s anybody’s guess.  Kris mysteriously goes to a man known only as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig)–how she knows of his existence or location is unexplained.  He, equally mysteriously, transplants the worms from her body into pigs that he raises, but he’s not a heroic figure, based on his subsequent actions and ultimate fate.  (The Sampler also records various sounds, which may or may not be used for the purpose of summoning the worms, and he has what may or may not be a flashback about events preceding his wife’s death.)  Some time later, Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), apparently randomly, and they fall in love, but it’s also possible that he’s ingested the same drug, and he has a history that may or may not be real.

So yeah.  There may be no clarity at all to the events of Upstream Color, but there is a powerful mood.  In its sense of vaguely desperate yearning, of a couple tied eternally to one another and yet unable to communicate, at times it recalls the films of Wong Kar-Wai like In the Mood For Love, while at other times it evokes the biological horror of early David Cronenberg and the spiritually-tinged nature studies in Terence Malick’s films.  And yet Upstream has its own tone and its own integrity.  Carruth won’t explain anything, but he doesn’t bore; the movie (unlike most of Malick’s) is, in its way, tightly edited, 96 minutes that don’t outstay their welcome.  Similarly, the performances by Seimetz and Carruth feel rooted in genuine emotion, even if the reasons behind those emotions are a puzzle.  Although the film is clearly produced on a small budget, it doesn’t have the handheld, grainy “indie” feel we’ve come to know; Carruth’s camerawork has elegance and precision.

You have to be in the right mood for Upstream Color; it’s the opposite of a slice of life, let alone a procedural. It’s an unresolved, open-ended mood-piece, and yet it’s not a fraud, and not merely abstract–it makes its way under your skin.  Carruth puts the “independent” back into independent film.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."