Here’s what I think about Upstream Color nearly three weeks after seeing it: I’m unsure. I’ve not yet finished processing it. I can’t even explain the title.
Screening Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the self-distributed film marks the belated sophomore effort of writer/director/producer/actor/editor/ composer/cinematographer/camera operator Shane Carruth, who became an instant indie darling with his 2004 debut, Primer. That head-scratcher of a time-travel story either led you by the balls or kicked you in them, and Upstream Color will be greeted with a similar love-or-loathe reception.
On a rainy night, a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz, Tiny Furniture) is abducted. Her kidnapper tells her that she can’t look directly at him, and Carruth’s camera denies us a glimpse, as well. He plays tricks with her mind that reduce her to a lesser state. She spends her days in captivity reading Walden, playing with poker chips and making paper chains.
Almost as suddenly, Kris is released and can’t remember her ordeal, as if her brain has been wiped clean. She’s fired from her job for not only her protracted absence, but her inability to explain said absence.
Then she is romanced by a divorcé, Jeff (Carruth), and that’s when things really get weird. She finds a worm wiggling underneath her skin. Pigs are shaved for surgery. A man (Andrew Sensenig, The Last Exorcism Part II) quietly samples the sounds of nature. Maggots writhe — at least I think they’re maggots.
Confused? Join the club. This is one of those films that demands multiple viewings in order to parse and puzzle out; unfortunately, I didn’t have that luxury.
But it sure looks fantastic. Like Terrence Malick’s equally enigmatic The Tree of Life, the camera floats from one gorgeous image to another, with shots bleeding into one another rather than cutting — a method of rapid edit that doesn’t feel like Michael Bay’s brand of ADHD.
With such purposely perplexing works, what matters is not that you “got it” all upon first watch, but whether you’re willing to submit to another round — or rounds plural — to peel back its layers in hopes of gaining a better understanding, although no such promise is made.
In the case of Upstream Color, I would consent to that, which makes Carruth’s movie successful.
I think. —Rod Lott