It’s been nine years since Shane Carruth’s debut Primer scooped the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival establishing Carruth’s status as one to watch in a new wave of American independent filmmaking. Shot on Super 16mm with a budget of only $7K, Primer’s depiction of two scientists who discover a means of time-travel was praised for its aesthetic qualities and realistic characters, yet left many viewers bewildered, most notably for its use of scientific language and experimental narrative structure.
Those deterred by the latter points however, should have no concerns for Carruth’s long awaited follow up. Upstream Color is a visceral vortex of striking imagery and haunting sounds, almost void of any real dialogue. The film has already drawn many comparisons to the work of Malick and despite a more linear plot than Primer, Upstream Color relies heavily on mood and atmosphere rather than a classical narrative structure. Every shot feels meticulous in its approach and like its predecessor, Color is sure to warrant multiple viewings in order to fully dissect.
It’s important to stress that the less you know about Upstream Color, the more rewarding the experience. There is bound to be confusion regardless of any prior knowledge obtained but for those who prefer to know less before viewing, you may wish to stop reading now.
Color opens on a character simply named as The Thief (Thiago Martins) who discovers a larvae that when ingested, releases a mind controlling substance able to rob its victim of any resistance or independent thought. Randomly he picks out Kris (Amy Seimetz), forcing her to digest the larva against her will; the effects are immediate and The Thief moves into Kris’s house. What follows is a psychiatric assault as The Thief manipulates Kris to sell the house so he can obtain the funds, whilst having her perform menial tasks, dictating when she can drink water, and convincing her she can’t look at him as his “head is made from the same material as the sun”. The absence of any verbal, physical or even sexual abuse between the pair inflicts a deeper more chilling theme as we watch Kris blindly comply with enslavement, whilst being stripped of all financial and material assets
With his objective complete The Thief takes off, leaving Kris alone to discover the larva inside her. After failing to remove it herself, Kris is drawn to a man named The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who performs an operation in which the organism is transferred from Kris’s body, into that of a living pig. Such a proposal seems laughable but so assured is Carruth’s direction, it’s hard not to be compelled.
Kris awakens in her car to find her life completely unravelled with no recollection of the cause. She loses her job, her house and it’s at this point the film shifts from Cronenberg-esque body horror to relationship drama, as Carruth’s character Jeff enters the fray.
Like Kris, Jeff seems to be recovering from a recent life changing ordeal and the pair attempt to find solace in one another’s fragmented identities, whilst determined to discover what exactly happened to them. To reveal anymore would be unfair but rest assured, Carruth saves his most elliptical work for the final third, in which dialogue is sparse and Malick-like ambiguity is very much present.
Despite the Malick comparisons – in both visual terms and the nine year hiatus – Carruth has managed to establish his own unique singular vision, and in doing so, proves Primer was by no means a fluke. Embodying the very essence of an auteur, Carruth acts as writer, director, star, producer, cinematographer, editor and even composed the sound and musical score. Shot on a Panasonic GH2, the film also marks a great step forward in digital filmmaking and is bound to inspire the DSLR community, highlighting that movies rely on a solid scriptwriting, compelling performances and a sharp eye for detail, regardless of what budget or technical equipment is available.
Almost a decade after his debut, film forums are still ripe with analytical debates and theories surrounding the context of Primer and it’s safe to say Upstream Color may occupy its place for the next ten years; let’s just hope we don’t have to wait that long for Carruth’s next feature.