Upstream Color (2013) is a “what does that mean?” kind of movie. It’s an allegory, I think. Allegories aren’t really in vogue, with the post-somethingist question “why does it have to mean anything?” I’m pretty sure this means something. It’s a pretty weird allegory. Let me put it this way, the movie ends with someone gently rocking a pig to sleep. It’s odd. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but Upstream Color is really about the experience as much as plot. It’d be like saying Lord of the Flies is about the degeneration of society to say that Upstream Color is about identity and for that to ruin someone’s enjoyment of the thing..
Kris (Amy Seimetz) works in a 3D printing firm. The Thief (Thiago Martins) tends to plants, scraping off this blue residue that, when consumed, creates strange behavior. The Thief attacks Kris, forcing a grub (fed on this residue) down her throat and turning her into a zombie. He destroys her life, taking all her worldly possessions. When he’s through, she comes to another man (Andrew Sensenig) who removes these grubs (which have turned into subcutaneous worms) and leaves her in her car, scarred emotionally and physically, but having no recollection of the event. She eventually meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) on the bus and they begin a troubled relationship. It’s clear that Jeff is also a victim. They try to live their lives, but once they pull on one thread, they come to find some answers.
It takes them a long time to figure out that something is seriously wrong with them. That would be strange because there is obviously something seriously wrong with them. This might have been very annoying if the movie wasn’t as attractive as it was and as impressionistic as it was. It takes a special kind of obtuseness to hold to a realistic plot when you have minimal dialogue and continuity. That and weird grub things causing instant hypnosis. But these grubs represent something (not sure what), the “life sampler” clearly represents someone (not sure who), and the main character’s behavior represents some kind of shared experience (not sure how).
I’m not big on allegories because it’s about code-breaking. I had a bad experience. My senior year of high school, we read a poem in class. It was My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke. I said it was about an abusive relationship, but my teacher said that was wrong, that it was a literal event. I pushed back and said, “I didn’t think poetry interpretations could be wrong.” “Well, in this case, the author has spoken and you are wrong.” From that day onward, I have resented symbolism. The grub has gone too deep. But even if I don’t go down that rabbit hole, I don’t mind others that do. I will stick to the image, the sound, the plot, and the performance. Luckily, that was pretty enthralling as well.
The obvious and accurate comparison is the work of Terrence Malick, of whom you know I’m a fan. Upstream Color is like Malick earnestly trying to tell a linear story. The score (by the writer/director/producer/editor/cinematographer Shane Carruth) is the same kind of ethereal score that Malick uses, though Carruth doesn’t use any classical music that I could hear. Watching Upstream Color on Blu Ray was thoroughly enjoyable to me. The close, crystal clear focus and the vivid colors accompanied by the sounds around them made for glorious chaff to the mysterious wheat (read: story). The fact that Carruth does it all and also plays a significant character in the story is astounding. More astounding is that it was shot on a DSLR that’d probably cost you in the range of $1,500 (with more, obviously, for the lenses). The dream of all young filmmakers.
If this were a studio produced film, the thing might have turned into something like Side Effects (2013). That cuts both ways, certainly. [NB: I’m not saying Soderbergh compromised himself, I haven’t seen the movie, but it just looks like a more traditionally told story.] Side Effects is very well regarded, but it isn’t something as oddly personal in message and execution as Upstream Color. I’m a horrible philistine underneath, so I really wanted a violent revenge against the Thief and Sampler with some kind of real-world explanation of what exactly the hell was going on. If that’s what you want, then you’re going to have to look somewhere else. This thing starts odd and ends odder.
Even if I’m going to let go and accept the movie for what it is, there’s something that stays unsatisfying. The performances and internal hour of Upstream Color is very rooted and realistic. They have pain, but it’s a real pain. It’s as though we’ve stepped through the symbolism and we’re seeing the world Carruth is trying to represent. It’s very moving and engaging. That’s why I wanted a real, plot-oriented closure to their pain. Instead, we get a close of pure metaphor. Not only that, but a metaphor that seemed unconnected to what I thought Carruth was talking about. Okay, I’m just going to talk about it.
[Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Alert]
At first, I thought it was about identity theft. Well, really at first I thought it was a sci-fi movie about this guy who developed some weird organic chemical thing that allowed him to do weird things. After that guy left the scene and Kris started living her life as if nothing weird just happened–gee, why do I have these knife wounds?–I thought, “Oh, okay, this is what we’re doing.” Then we really get into the upstream color bit and the connection with the pigs and I thought, “Man, this is too much to decipher mid-movie, are we still doing identity theft?” Then she shoots the Sampler in the weakest act of gun violence I’ve ever seen on film and that’s when I gave up. Here’s what I imagine someone would say to me:
“Dude, it’s not about identity theft, it’s about identity itself.”
“Yeah, man. Look, the ‘Sampler’? Right? That’s like people who watch and borrow other identities, they record. Maybe the Sampler is Carruth himself, the director. He’s also the Thief, the writer. He comes into someone’s life and takes little pieces, causing fear, shared experience…”
“Yeah, man, it’s all there.”
“What are the grubs, then?”
“They’re ideas… Yeah, ideas.”
“I thought that it might be something like information, like your public identity.”
“No, man, I don’t think so. I think they’re ideas.”
I’ll stick to pretty pictures. And Carruth made those, so I can recommend the movie.