Hidden Gems: Upstream Color
By Kyle Lee
March 17, 2016

As seen in Tuvalu.

Shane Carruth got strong notices (and many awards) for his 2004 debut film Primer, a mega-low-budget movie about two friends who stumble into inventing a time machine. Made for just $7,000, the film is remarkable in many ways. My favorite way is the elliptical and complex storytelling, so that we’re not always sure where we are in the timeline of the movie. Carruth feels no need to spell everything out for us, and has even said that although he had to figure out the complex timeline of the movie in order to make it, it’s not necessary for the viewer to. I love that he didn’t spoon feed us everything, or anything, but also that it’s not just a puzzle to figure out. You can work to figure out the logistics if you want, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the movie. There’s also the immortal line “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.” Unfortunately, he struggled through financing his next picture, a sci-fi masterpiece of a script called A Topiary, before eventually abandoning it to make 2013's Upstream Color, which for my money is the best movie of the 2010s.

Upstream Color is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, nearly silent movie. Not silent like The Artist, I say it's silent simply because it relies very little on dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue in the movie, but it doesn’t rely exclusively on it to tell its story or convey ideas. The movie is more about the rhythm of the narrative, the extraordinary cinematography, and the overall sound design. Or I guess I should say that these elements are elevated more here than they are by other filmmakers. The sound design is integral to the story in a way you pretty much never see, and can’t really be explained unless you’ve seen it. Also low budgeted (though Carruth has refused to say, because he felt Primer got too much press for its budget and not for the movie itself, but I've seen estimates showing this one around $50,000), still absolutely gorgeously made, you’d never guess from looking at it that it was a low budget movie, except for the fact that it’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.

It's told non-linearly and often abstractly, but the basic story of the movie is that of a woman, Kris (played by the intriguingly beautiful Amy Seimetz) who is drugged and kidnapped by a man known in the credits only as Thief (Thiago Martins) who, through the drug he slips her (which has some sort of worm in it), is able to put her in a hypnosis-like state. Eventually he leads her to liquidate her bank account and all other money and give it to him, before he disappears. Somehow she’s then led, still in a hypnotic state, to the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) a pig farming sound recorder, who removes the worm from her body and transfers it to that of one of his pigs.

Suddenly, Kris awakes in her SUV on the side of the highway, unaware of anything that has happened in the previous days. She returns to find her house littered with blood stains, things missing, food all over, and eventually no money in her bank accounts and fired from her job (go mysteriously missing for days with no explanation and this is what would happen). Later, on a train, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) whom she has an almost metaphysical connection to. They fall in love, and both start to unveil their secret pasts and what happened to them, with more in common than we would've anticipated.

The story is told without any rush, with a beautiful, Malick-esque intermixing of natural and urban settings. Stolen moments helping to fill in the gaps of what would normally be a big Hollywood thriller of kidnapping and thievery. Carruth gives a nice leading man performance, but the star here is Seimetz, whose work is truly extraordinary. She gives Kris a look haunted from her past, but also her brief smile lights up her face and lets us see that Kris really is in love with Jeff. They weren't drawn together because of their pasts, they were drawn together seemingly in spite of them. Weirdly, I could continue detailing the entire plot and it still wouldn’t ruin the movie, but I’ll leave it there for you to discover on your own. The movie works the first time around, no matter how much you know about it. But like all the great pieces of art, it enhances upon each viewing as your understanding of it and emotional connection to it grows.

Now, you can't talk about a Shane Carruth movie without mentioning just what he did in it. From interviews I've seen and read, it seems more about keeping budget down than it is him being a stereotypical controlling artist, but still his credits on this movie are: Writer, director, producer, star, music composer, sound composer, editor, director of photography and one of the camera operators. There's certainly no doubt as to whose vision this movie is. It’s likely the only reason he could make such a professional looking movie on a budget so small, by doing nearly everything himself.

I first saw this movie in 2013 when it came on Netflix streaming (where both of Carruth’s movies still are), but it has stuck in my memory since then and I’ve revisited it multiple times. It’s always less confusing than the first time around. But even then, I didn't care that I was confused on a story level because Carruth had me mesmerized by every second and so it was more that I didn't know what to expect and wasn't always sure where we were headed. Now I know, and so the atmosphere works even better because I can give myself over to the movie and let it wash over me while also picking up on a ton of little things I'd missed in previous viewings. I "got it" the first time around, Carruth's movies don't beg re-watches because you don't understand every little thing, you don't need to. They beg re-watches because he respects the audience’s intelligence and refuses to explain every little thing to make sure we understand it. I enjoy Upstream Color much more than I did Primer (which I also really like) and will continue going back to it over and over again. And at just 96 minutes, Carruth doesn't overstay his welcome, he ends things perfectly and in a way that makes us want to enjoy the ride again and again.

We must hope that Carruth's next movie, titled The Modern Ocean and with a reported cast including Anne Hathaway, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Radcliffe, and Jeff Goldblum among others, will still be his vision. It’s reportedly “big budget” but with Carruth that could mean almost any number that would still be microscopic by Hollywood standards. Carruth has gained big fans like filmmakers Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and Steven Soderbergh, who has called Carruth "the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron." And Soderbergh has also said that if he ran a studio, he'd give talents like Carruth a decent budget and just let them go make whatever they want and sit back and be amazed at the result. Hopefully that’s what we can look forward to with The Modern Ocean. Carruth has already been nominated for many awards (including five Independent Spirit awards for his two movies, nominated for Best Director both times) so let's hope his next work of genius is as good as Upstream Color and comes much sooner than the nine-year wait we had to endure last time.