REVIEW: Upstream Color [2013]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: April 5th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: erbp
Director(s): Shane Carruth
Writer(s): Shane Carruth

“How are you supposed to help someone like that?”

I think we can now officially declare writer/director Shane Carruth far from a one-hit wonder. As the years ticked by with nothing to glimpse on the silver screen, no one could have been blamed for thinking this former software engineer simply had nothing more to say. His journey to cinema was far from conventional and his critical praise almost too universal to ever be matched. And with a predilection for the obtuse, obscure, and intellectually challenging, no Hollywood studio would ever dare toss him a fraction of the budget they give away to brash, watered-down works that are all surfaces and no substance. This led to the ultimate demise of his ambitiously sprawling, planned follow-up to Primer called A Topiary and is in large part the reason his welcome return would be another small-scale piece with incalculable depth.

An intricate puzzle drawing us into its abstract interpretation of what it means to be an individual, Upstream Color grabs hold of your senses for a journey beyond our conscious state. Its characters evolve out of this thematic message by embodying the predator, victim, and bystander that populate the human cycle—each role inferring upon our ideals, morality, and courage to break free of the existential crises constantly met. We hold tight to a utopic vision of being an original while knowingly or unknowingly falling in line with an already constructed entity to give us the communal belonging we so yearn to possess. Who we are will forever be compromised as our insecurities force us into following the herd. No matter how far we’re removed from the spotlight of singularity, however, safety from horror can never be assured.

Witnessed via the actions of The Thief (Thiago Martins), a lack of procuring a volunteer for his abuse only means that one will be chosen. His weapon: a powerful hypnotic agent harvested from an infected nematode that has fed off its blue orchid host. Carruth shows its power through experimentations handled by young men intrigued by its gifts. The first to imbibe its potent drug becomes the malleable object of he who samples it second—the latter’s every movement mimicked on cue by the former’s puppet. Taking this parlor trick further, however, The Thief discovers its ability to take control over another’s thoughts and actions with nothing more than verbal cues. This is how he infiltrates Kris’ (Amy Seimetz) life to steal her savings and security before moving to his next victim.

Far from the end of the drug or Kris’ journey, her confusion and fear become no match for the growing parasite within. As The Thief controlled her via the nematode, it too now possesses a piece of her essence—feeding on it, coveting it, copying it. She knows it’s inside her and works hard to tear it from her flesh before the reverberations of high-volume sound attract the thing inside her towards its source. It’s here she stumbles upon The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a sort of telepath voyeur who feeds off the live memories of all that come to pass. A collector of sounds, souls, and whatever else at his grasp, it isn’t long before we realize Kris is far from the first victim of The Thief that he’s helped remove internal leeches from.

Just one more piece to the never-ending cycle, however, the consciousness ripped from Kris by the nematode is transferred to a pig The Sampler marks as his vessel for the lost souls he unsuspectingly lures in. With a wave of his hand he can see the pig’s other through a metaphysical bridge. Here they lie forever at his fingertips to watch and follow, the animals proving to be merely conduits to the people themselves now transformed into his pets. His interference in their lives becomes implicit as the mere collecting of them together in his pen leads to dueling identities wrestling for control. As the pigs meet and connect so to do their human counterparts with the pool of consciousness between them all overlapping everyone’s experiences into one.

What it all means ultimately rests in the eye of the beholder as some see a metaphor for child abuse and others religion. It could also simply be an example of our helplessness to the evil that could catch and mold us into its plaything—how easy it is for us to give in to convenience and let our lives be lived by those surrounding us instead of ourselves. Perhaps it is merely the Devil (Thief) depositing whispers of deceit into our ears that can only be ignored by true courage as we roam earth with God (Sampler) watching from afar, deciding whether we’re worthy of his grace. From here lies the inevitable comparison of cults to churches and the communal spirit so intrinsically aligned with good being just a whisker away from destruction.

Maybe Upstream Color is a tale of contemporary Adam and Eve brainwashed into ignoring the forbidden fruit by the Thief stealing our identity as we’re made to live in a clouded haze of ambivalence, playthings for a higher power to monitor and control. But just as they are broken apart, a reunion will always be an inevitable possibility. As Kris picks up the fragments of her life post-abduction, so too does Jeff (Carruth). While his re-assimilation into the fabric of society has had the time to solidify, however, Kris’ psyche still mends and therefore remains pliable and receptive to the outside interference. Subconscious recollections of the text from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that The Thief made her read are mumbled, her past converges with his, and the two connect beyond the conventions of love.

Whether the physical manifestation of that line of scripture at weddings concerning bride and groom “becoming one flesh” or simply an example of that human need to find an accepting partner before acquiring the confidence to be ourselves instead of the mold we’re poured into, this union provides them the chance to pinpoint their internal/psychological damage and try to mend. However, as the circle drags them deeper into its perpetual commune of simple-minded figures herded around their pen—completely sufficient on their farmers’ charity—they rediscover that inalienable human right of freedom. And as the blue orchid’s essence travels person to person in Carruth’s gorgeously abstract vision of visually and aurally poetic metaphor for a transcendental life that we alone have the power to create, so too does mankind’s resiliency.

[1] Amy Seimetz stars as Kris and Shane Carruth stars as Jeff in ERBP’s Upstream Color (2013)
[2] Shane Carruth stars as Jeff in ERBP’s Upstream Color (2013)
[3] Amy Seimetz stars as Kris in ERBP’s Upstream Color (2013)

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