Upstream Color (2013)
Written & Directed by Shane Carruth
We follow a man who harvests a strange larva from plants with a blue-glittery powder on their leaves. He ends up stalking a club, waiting for someone wandering past by themselves. This comes in the form of Kris, a young woman. After being tased, she wakes as this nameless man forces her to ingest one of the larvae, immediately making her easily susceptible to his suggestions. Kris brings him to her house where he goes about making her empty her bank accounts and liquidating her home equity. He leaves her once he has all this money and she finds wormlike creatures are wiggling around under her skin. The subsonic speakers of another man lure Kris into a field where he helps remove the worms and places them in a pig. Kris attempts to go on with her life until she meets Jeff. Some mysterious force draws them together, and they slowly realize they have been victims of something new and frightening.
Shane Carruth is a hugely important 21st-century independent filmmaker with Upstream Color being his second and last film to date. His first feature, Primer, has become famous for its reported budget of $7,000 and the intricate and nuanced use of time travel. Carruth is not a director interested in the typical spectacle of things like time travel and body horror; he focuses in on the mood these tropes bring to a story and how they affect the characters’ lives. There’s very little dialogue in Upstream Color, so information is mostly shared through images and disinformation and confusion is caused when people speak. The Thief, the man from the beginning of the film, talks a lot but his words are part of the hypnotic state Kris is put into. Kris and Jeff have conversations, but they often break down as their histories and memories become jumbled.
Carruth has spoken about Upstream Color as being about “cycles of harm” and how people break those cycles. In the film, there is a life cycle to the mysterious blue micro-organism that is hurting so many. Orchid harvesters find strange blue plants and sell them. The plants are purchased by The Thief who gets the larva that he uses to put people under his control and steal everything they have. The pig farmer has found that using subsonic sound; he gets victims who visit him. He helps them remove the worms and places them in his pigs. Through the pigs, he finds himself empathically connected the other victims. Eventually, he drowns the piglets born from the infected from the worms and they leak out the blue powder that is absorbed by the orchids. Carruth describes the orchid harvesters as “benign,” the Thief as “malicious,” and the pig farmer as someone who isn’t benefitting from the cycle yet helping to perpetuate it. The pig farmer becomes an antagonist to Kris and Jeff even if he doesn’t realize he is.
Upstream Color is a dense piece of cinema, incredibly ambitious in its themes and its trust in the audience to understand what the film is trying to say. The cinematography is very much in the vein of a filmmaker like Terence Malick, rich with a stream of conscious and not bogged down by attempting to be flashy. Most of what we see on screen is meant to be interpreted psychologically and emotionally rather than as a literal series of events. Most independent cinema doesn’t present stories in such a hands-off manner, allowing the audience to make connections between images. There is almost no expository dialogue in the picture, and the entire cycle of harm is communicated through a collage of images.
This will not be a movie that every audience enjoys, but neither was Primer. What the film does represent is part of a more substantial move forward in 21st Century cinema, addressing issues of the environment and the human connection to nature, both a beneficially and painful dynamic. There is a perpetual sense of momentum, the film pulling you forward towards some great unknown point. We do not fully understand the journey we are on, fragmented like the way the camera presents Kris and Jeff, but aware that we’re a part of some rich web of connection, careful to not let it harm us.