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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.23.13] scifi thriller drama experimental arthouse avant-garde



As difficult to categorize as it is to fully understand, Upstream Colour is a new film by Shane Carruth (writer/director of Primer). It works as a kind of puzzle for the viewer to piece together as we follow the journey taken by its protagonists, a man and woman who meet on a train, and discover impossible psychological connections which bring them together in a relationship based on shared memories, visions and feelings of deep unease in life. It's not an easy film to watch, told in a fragmented style and with much left uncertain about specifics, but if one pays attention it is a very rewarding and at times genuinely astonishing experience.

There is no way I'm going to try to explain what happens in Upstream Colour. For one thing, this would be too complex for a readable review, but it would also just serve to detract from the joy of watching it unfold without preconceptions. What I can say is that it involves a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is drugged by a stranger who appears to dabble in experimental botany.


Kris is taken home and seems hypnotized, walking through exercises arranged by this man, which include emptying her bank accounts, drinking water which she is told will taste glorious, and memorizing Walden by Thoreau. When she wakes from her somnambulistic state she is alone in her car on a motorway lay-by and has no recollection of these events. Confused but unhurt she opts not to call the police but changes her mind when she discovers her savings account is empty and she has lost not only her house, but also her job, due to a prolonged absence from work. This all happens in the opening scenes and unfolds in such a way that it feels like the flashback before the meat of the film begins. The film picks up several months or even years after this event. Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth) on a train, and against the odds he is instantly drawn to her, despite her now fragile emotional state. It is hinted that she has been somewhat traumatized by her ordeal as she is now living a lonely existence working in a copy-shop and living in a small apartment, but Jeff tries to break though all this and they start dating. There is a strange, almost transcendental connection to a giant pig farm and the man who lives there.

Carruth's follow-up to Primer certainly delivers on the promise of his first film, which is now widely regarded as a cult-classic (and very much the sort of film Richard Kelly should have made instead of his bloated, career-killing opus 'Southland Tales'). Upstream Colour is a highly cerebral and mysterious film but at no point does it break a cardinal rule by becoming confusing. It reminded me of a quote from David Lynch: "Mystery is good, confusion is bad, and there's a big difference between the two. Some things in life are not that understandable, but when things in films are that way, people become worried." The key to enjoying Upstream Colour is to solve it by following the clues, paying attention to the narrative and the character interactions and then to sit back and enjoy watching it all come together at the end.

It helps hugely that the film is so well crafted in its visuals and sound design, which both play a significant part in setting the tone, and although they are very different in their style there's something of the Lynch about it all, as Carruth shares that sense of how important a sound or a fraction of music can be, and knows that if you cannot explain something in words, then you can always use images to get the idea across, such is the nature of cinema. I struggled to think of another film to watch to prepare someone for seeing this (except Primer obviously, or perhaps Aronofsky's 'Pi'), but Lynch's Mulholland Drive might be a place to start as here too the shifting of the character's identities and the events taking place just outside of their world all seem to conspire against them.

It is a very rare thing to see a film which totally respects the viewer and their intelligence, but I suspect that Carruth knows his audience and that they will appreciate the complexity of this strange mobius strip. See it, think about it, tell others about it.

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