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