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Upstream Color is Cryptic, Dreamlike Art

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 06, 2013
<i>Upstream Color</i> is Cryptic, Dreamlike Art

Release Date: April 5th, 2013 limited; expands theatrically through May; available May 7th on iTunes and
Rating: Not Rated (a PG-13 equivalent, for brief language, brief sexuality, brief violence, and scary/unsettling situations)
Genre: Sci-Fi Drama
Run Time: 95 min
Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig

I remember watching Shane Carruth’s debut feature Primer back in 2004 and being thoroughly confused by it. It was fascinating to observe and scrutinize but tedious to not have a clue what the characters were talking about. I was lost, and it lost me.

There’s no doubt Carruth knew exactly what it was all about and was keeping the plot cryptic by design. I watched it again recently while following an online scene-by-scene explanation and still struggled to make sense of it. The only thing that’s easy to comprehend is why it became a cult classic; that designation speaks to both its strengths and weaknesses.

Upstream Color is pretty much the same animal with one exception: it’s an infinitely superior film in every regard. With Primer, Carruth was working out his art. With Upstream Color, he’s made a work of art. I don’t fully understand everything that happened, and at this point I don’t really care if I ever do. Instead of saying that with exasperated frustration, I mean it as a high compliment.

To try to explain the narrative is a bit of a fool’s errand, but here’s what I could grasp: a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz, in a career-making performance) is kidnapped, drugged, and submitted to a series of experiments. She is awake and alert but not conscious, processing information and responding to stimuli like a computer. It’s as if the man who’s conducting the experiments has found a way to treat her like a robot; she is a slave to the power of suggestion. And if that’s not strange enough, there’s also a surgical process that involves ingesting worms and some sort of psychic transfer to a pig.

Then it actually gets weirder and, amazingly, more beautiful.

Kris is released, regaining consciousness in her deserted SUV. She has no idea what’s happened or where she’s been. Within days a man, Jeff (Carruth), enters her life. He too, it seems, has been submitted to the same experience as Kris, though both remain oblivious. A parallel story of their Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) serves to flesh out the process of these human guinea pig/actual pig connections, both the essence of what’s going on (if not actual details) as well as defining that Kris and Jeff have not met by accident. Whether their meeting was planned or an unintended twist of fate remains unclear, but this bizarre physio-spiritual creation of soulmates is poignant – and raises the stakes.

I've always wondered what it would've been like to live through the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism revolutions (the films of Truffaut, Fellini, and others) as they happened in the 1950s and 60s. I think watching a Shane Carruth movie may finally give us an idea of what that must've felt like. Carruth's films are singular and they're transforming our film language - Upstream Color especially. As best as I can describe it, here's what I sense he’s up to:

While his stories are intentionally opaque, Carruth's not crafting lyrical or poetic expressions that are less interested in narrative (like, say, Terrence Malick does). I think Carruth is very much about narrative, even obsessively so, and has a completely defined plot in his mind. The rub is that he’s only giving us select moments from that narrative. He may have a story that's three hours long but is only giving us a meticulous and strategic ninety minutes worth of segments from that narrative.

Plot holes, therefore, are not accidental by-products; they are intentional and thought-through. What may seem (and even be) impenetrable actually has a clarity that Carruth has fully worked out – but kept from us.

What the audience experiences, then, are mostly sequential scenes without context that still feel very connected somehow, thanks to Carruth's direction. While he may keep narrative context a mystery, there is a tonal, emotional, and psychological through-line that is very clear. The result is undeniably hypnotic. It's literally like watching a dream: we have almost no idea what just happened, but we understand it. We're also affected by it, at times viscerally so, and moved.

It's exciting to think that we may very well be watching a director develop a yet-to-be-named cinematic style, one that someday will be defined with some illuminating title ("Dream Cinema," perhaps?). Until then, it’ll be both fun and rewarding to watch that language evolve.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Wine consumed with a meal. Drug-induced medical experiments.
  • Language/Profanity: The s-word is used once.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: A couple instances of passionate kissing. Another of a couple lying in bed together, under the covers, kissing intimately.
  • Violence/Other: A woman is kidnapped and drugged, experimented on (though not graphically). A worm/maggot is injected into a person; it squirms underneath the person’s skin. A woman stabs herself in the leg with a big kitchen knife. A medical incision is made into a pig, which is being experimented on. Several moments create a sense of fear, both immediate and psychological.

Publication date: May 3, 2013