About halfway through Upstream Color, I just stopped taking notes; not because it was confusing (it was) but because I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Notes are useless when a movie invades your mind so thoroughly as this one, and director Shane Carruth’s sophomore movie is a mesmerizing feature, even if you’ll leave the theatre scratching your head.
How, then, to make sense of Upstream Color? A secular version of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life perhaps; maybe more art than plot, or a promotion for digital film. But even if you can’t agree with fellow filmgoers on what you saw, you’ll agree that it’s truly a gorgeous film, with the dream-like cinematography and score perfectly fitting the enigmatic nature of the plot.
However, it’s almost futile to try and describe it to someone- there’s a very good chance the movie you saw would be a different experience from the person sitting next to you. But here’s the set up as I followed it: a man drugs a young woman (played by Amy Seimetz) with a nightmarish larvae that allows him to control her view of reality, and he essentially uses this power to rob her and thoroughly ruin her life. But it’s when Seimetz, slowly coming out of the trance, wants the grub out of her body that things get a little hazy, even more so when she meets and connects with a fellow victim played by director Shane Carruth. With bendy plot points and a sort-of ‘we are all connected’ theme (that I may have interpreted wrong), it’s definitely a movie that needs more than one viewing, and even then it may not make much sense.
But that’s not a bad thing. Even when you think you’ve lost it, Carruth looks to have everything in control, and nothing feels out of place. This feeling is strengthened when considering just how much control he had over his film (he’s also the producer, editor, and wrote the hypnotic and all-pervasive score). When compared to his first film, Primer, Upstream Color is actually a bit more straightforward: its non-linear storytelling is less ingrained than Primer’s non-linear time-travel story, and it’s easier to embrace some of Color’s plot as science fiction symbolism.
If you can, watch Upstream Color on the big screen, and despite what I said above, don’t worry about the confusing plot. Just embrace the experience- you may enjoy the trip.