It’s been nearly a decade — nine years to be exact — since Shane Carruth made a splash in the indie community with his wonderful micro-budget time-travel thriller Primer and finally he’s back with his highly anticipated and divisive sophomore film, Upstream Color. The much discussed price tag of his debut, a mere $7,000, has led him to dodge questions regarding the budget and camera used to shoot Upstream Color, but this highly experimental, mostly non-narrative sound/image montage has more than enough thematic heft to distract critics from the gritty details. Where the first half of Primer is full of rapid-fire dialogue with scientific jargon and heady astrophysics theories being ping-ponged back-and-forth like an episode of Gilmore Girls, Upstream Color is a 90-minute meditation on storytelling and the fragile nature of identity and human connection that feels like a feature-length version of the most abstract segments of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
On paper, this sounds like an exceptional idea, and, indeed, Upstream Color is one of the most ambitious films in recent years and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any adventurous moviegoer. But the gap between the realized film and its grandiose aspirations does leave something to be desired. The plot — or more accurately, the setup — consists a man and a woman, Jeff (Carruth) and Kris (Amy Seimetz), who are inextricably drawn together for unknown and unexplained reasons. Kris appears to have mental health issues while Jeff has problems at his workplace and seems uncontrollably drawn to the troubled young woman. Intercut with the couple’s unhealthily complicated budding relationship are the initially unrelated endeavors of a pig farmer and field recordings sampler billed simply as “Sampler.” It is through the couple’s connection to Sampler that Carruth tackles his most lofty and ambitious thematic concerns, with a series of ambiguous scenes that suggest Sampler has a hand in the fate of Jeff and Kris, hinting at both medical surgeries that may have put Kris under his control and sonic experiments that set a rhythm and pace that not only carries into the couple’s world, but appears to imperceptibly guide them. The reappearances of Thoreau’s Walden are another tenuous thematic through-line: Jeff is drawn to reading it aloud while Kris continues his quotes from memory, reciting them in an almost somnambulistic state.
This overarching, all-pervasive notion of control, both in terms of a storyteller’s power over his or her characters and our own lack thereof in relation to our fates and identities, is presented in such a singular fashion that it’s easy to overlook the film’s stubborn refusal to allow its disparate parts to coalesce into much more than signposts pointing towards its grander themes. The repeated scenes of Sampler working as a pig farmer and Kris gathering rocks from the bottom of a pool are among a number of malformed ideas that come off as a tad half-baked — analogies that loosely tie into the theme of mankind’s ability and obliviousness to the larger forces that shape our reality, from the surroundings down to personal decisions. As a mood piece, Upstream Color is quite effective, with an impressive construction of ambient sounds and intuitively cadenced editing that attempts a new form of cinematic expression, but its muddled thematic follow-through makes it an equally frustrating and rewarding experience.
All of these cryptic sequences create an enigmatic tension that is further intensified when the couple begins to exhibit increasingly paranoid symptoms, as the incongruous nature of their accepted identities and the world around them slowly begin to unravel — however the source of the tension is never grounded in anything palpable. Even while the film’s acute attention to the material world and its character’s physical connection to it (and each other) is a constant, the film remains overly ephemeral, its emotions disconnected from its intellectual core. And because of this, Carruth never truly penetrates the admittedly beautiful melodic textures that carry the film from start to finish to reach any greater truths. Ultimately, Upstream Color is a fascinating stylistic experiment, and although its unique mode of storytelling can and should be applauded, the various lines of its threadbare narrative never quite unite in a way that matches the audacious spirit of its thematic preoccupations.