I actually view Upstream Color to be both substantially superior to and less confusing than Primer, his debut. So what is Shane Carruth going on about? Primarily, our conception of identity and forces that perhaps we are unable to perceive - much less understand - that mold this identity. It is obvious to even the most casual observer that our lives are overwhelmingly influenced things outside of our control. The plot we see, then, might be viewed as simply an innovative way to introduce these ideas into a film. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is accosted by a man who forces her to ingest a parasitic maggot that allows him to easily hypnotize and control her, with the ultimate goal being to steal everything she has. Once he's achieved this goal, he exits abruptly, leaving behind a ruined life. At this point, a mysterious figure surgically transfers the parasites from Kris to a pig, for motives more complex. No longer physically infected but still influenced by forces she doesn't understand, Kris encounters Jeff, a man similarly broken, and together they struggle to reassemble their lives and make some sense of what has happened to them.
In many ways, Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" may be the key. First, the Thief has Kris copy Thoreau's work as he prepares to wrench away all her material possession, an act which, despite its obvious malevolence, allows Kris to have a spiritual journey of sorts, to build her life up from the ground floor and truly seize life, as Thoreau sought to do in "Walden". As we see Kris reciting lines from "Walden" while retrieving stones from the bottom of a pool, she is expressing not only that she is beginning to remember some of what happened to her, but also that she is becoming aware that her life is not her own and that she must take action to secure her agency, which one could argue is the core thesis of Thoreau's novel. Finally, referencing "Walden" as an analogous narrative demonstrates that the Thief, Sampler and Orchid gatherers as a cycle represent Carruth taking advantage of that most elegant possibility offered by film to heighten and personify all of the inexplicable things that shape our lives. To make any of these figures entirely comprehensible (i.e. scientifically) would defeat the point, and ultimately make for a less intriguing narrative.
The title, then, is quite fitting. Most structurally, it refers to the blue chemical that flows downstream to affect the development of the orchids. Yet, in a metaphysical sense, it refers to the indistinguishable waves vastly divergent from actions taken far outside our perception, their ripples influencing the trajectory of our lives. As suggested by the trailer of the film, we may be able to force the shape of our story, but the color, the details that may define its richness are decided long before we have any say. Likewise, the oblivious and likely mostly benevolent florists, the morally grey or sometimes compromised Sampler and the explicitly exploitative and unethical Thief exist in a cycle, entirely dependent on each other with varying degrees of awareness, true of the power structures that we interact with ubiquitously.
Of course, it would be a mistake to trivialize the importance of romance in this film. In fact, much of the romantic development serves for a crucial springboard into the more ontological issues, and vice versa. What Kris gets from her time with Jeff beyond just companionship in an otherwise bleak existence, is some sense of self-worth, some understanding that fractured she may even be able to be loved to an extent previously unknown. Along the way, we see refreshing glimpses of the insecurities and questions of trust associated with opening your life up to another person. Carruth's framework for the issues that plague these characters allow the realization of such tender truths that the endurance of the film in the hearts of the willing viewer is practically ensured.
Despite the centrality of the romance, this is Kris' story and Seimetz's expression of the character's emotional trajectory is riveting. Carruth is great as the essential but reserved supporting character of Jeff, and succeeds in that his presence never detracts from the immersion. In a leading role, blemishes may have appeared, but there are none here. The score, sometimes reminiscent of Cliff Martinez's score for Soderbergh's Solaris, is universally captivating and worth listening to independently. The soundscape and visual cues serve to demonstrate how the characters most directly perceive a world controlled informed by powers they have no way of rationalizing or verbally expressing, and are always hypnotically rendered. The editing (done in collaboration with David Lowery, himself burgeoning with talent) facilitates a powerful emotional relevance and further aids in suggestion of thematic connections.
Destined to be lauded as a masterpiece by some and condemned as pretentious by others, Upstream Color is at the very least an ambitious sophomore effort from writer/ director/ producer/ editor/ actor/ composer/ distributor/ cinematographer Shane Carruth. I hope to unravel more of its carefully constructed mysteries in much-anticipated future viewings.
Suggested Reads (Heavy Spoilers):
ANGRYROBOT.CA's interpretation of Upstream Color (very plausible explanations)
Everything you were afraid to ask about Upstream Color
Upstream Color, Room 237, and why some movie mysteries don’t need to be solved
FSR interview with Shane Carruth
i09 interview with Shane Carruth