Upstream Color (2013)

When your first film is Primer, arguably the most complicated time-travel film ever made , the expectation for future films to be mind-benders is a daunting challenge. While writer/director Shane Carruth certainly weaves a story in Upstream Color that requires the audience to piece things together, perhaps even more than Primer, what makes it good is less of the mind-bending and more of how Carruth leverages the power of the medium of cinema.

There’s a strong, complicated and elusive story about Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who has a mysterious man assault her in an alley and then ends up having some sort of power over her. Soon she’s signed over her life to this man and is given back her free will. Reeling from the incident, and trying to piece together what happened, she stumbles across Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is going through his own personal crisis.

What is most striking about Upstream Color is the way it paces itself. On a macro level, the film expands story space in the opening thirty minutes and then condenses it in the last hour. There’s something about the procedure, the rituals that Kris goes through while under the will of another in the opening act, that the film hones in on. Through Shane Carruth’s cinematography, they become audio-visual feasts.

Within the microcosm of a scene or sequence, there’s also an amazing amount of detail spent on pacing and flow. More than a few scenes linger, which has led to some rather misguided comparisons to Malick. There are similar rhythms, but Carruth is connecting space and time through images to craft sequences that blend and bridge ideas, while Malick often lingers in space and time for its own majesty. If Malick is crafting poetry in film, that Carruth is crafting literary prose.

Carruth is using cinema as a kind of language, building sight and sound into a vocabulary. It’s why the opening act is important. Here he lingers on these movements and moments, trying to teach letters, words and syntax in order to convey something deeper and more complex in the final act. Not every viewer will want to learn, but those who do will find a mystery worth pursuing in the later section of the film.

While this makes it an impressive feat of cinema, and a non-traditional form of sci-fi, there’s a tangible, real world theme. Though this cinematic language and strange tale of fiction, Carruth explores ideas about human relationships. There’s a basic binary that certain relationships are controlling and abusive, while others are supportive and healing. However, as the film progresses, it also explores the loss of identity and self that comes from being intertwined deeply with another person.

Upstream Color excels at achieving excellence on all fronts. It’s an audio-visual feast, a provocative work of cinema, a thematically nuanced film about human relationships and a subtle and smart work of science fiction. The film’s leverage of cinema as a language, a way to convey and express something though sight and sound, means that it’s a film that requires work, but one that has more fruitful mysteries to unravel.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing