Director: Shane Carruth
Stars: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
A woman’s life is destroyed by a mysterious “drug” that forces her to rebuild her identity and seek solace in a similarly afflicted man.
Almost a decade a go we got Shane Carruth’s debut film Primer; the astonishing, $7000 lightning bolt fired straight to the heart of the international film community. It was a time-travel movie so innovative that it surpassed Robert Zemeckis’ Flux Capacitor in making us believe in the unbelievable. And the legend grew when the closing credits revealed Carruth to be the one-man film crew behind it all. Like the very Best Of debut films, his breakthrough reminded audiences and peers alike that ‘yes, you can do that’.
So the big question is, after all this time and an excruciatingly seductive teaser trailer (handled by the man himself, of course), how does his second film Upstream Color compare? The simple answer is it’s another giant leap forward; hugely ambitious in scope and theme, and once again an innovative and compelling experiment into the unknown via a daring clash of science-fiction and surrealism. Yes, he’s done it again and spread his wings a whole lot further this time.
As with Primer, all pleasantries are cast aside and it’s down to business as usual. A mysterious man is conducting a series of experiments with a special batch of maggots found underneath upstream orchards. It’s all very nice and intriguing until, without warning, the man uses his findings to commit an unspeakable act of cruelty towards the unsuspecting Kris (Amy Seimetz). And Carruth has us just like that. The illusion is in motion. It’s a powerful kind of violence; the kind you can empathise with.
Kris’ life is destroyed and the flood-gates of the narrative open to a God-like access of the far-reaching implications of the miniscule little parasites. This marks the descent into a strange new world where pigs can fly and their owner, known only as The Sampler, can be a pig farmer, expert surgeon and Foley sound recorder all at the same time. The guy is a walking contradiction and a telling sign that this film is a fascinating nightmare dredged up from the filmmaker’s subconscious.
Carruth stays firmly in control of his ideas and shows us a way out in the form of a genuine love story between Kris and Jeff (Carruth), a fellow commuter on her train to work, loosely reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He’s drawn to her as if by magnetic force and could be the key they both need to uncover the mystery and rebuild their identities. But how do you do that exactly?
Upstream Color is a challenging and divisive experience, but a worthwhile one that trusts your intuition. It’s a grand film built from enigmatic gestures and glances between characters, rendering dialogue unnecessary—sparking obvious comparisons with The Tree of Life. Sound, cinematography and performance get the message across just fine while we float between a series of narrative strands, taking cues from an impeccable free-association editing style Luis Bunuel would be proud of.
Once again, Carruth wears his unprecedented film authorship as a badge of honour in the films closing credits. Let’s see, he officially stands as writer, director, producer, actor, cinematographer, original music by and co-editor. The only person crazy enough to do all that is someone with a clear and uncompromising vision. And who were those crazy folks who cheered for it at the Sydney Film Festival? I’m with you.
Complete with obsessive creators, a heart-pounding mystery, and oh, so many pigs, finally, we know a little bit more about the artistic inclinations of the control freak that is Shane Carruth.