Like art of all forms, movies are always partially, even accidentally, political—reflective of society in often indirect fashions that aren’t always immediately apparent. For example, the late 1990s through the early 2000s were characterized by a wave of American films, including The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, eXistenZ, Mulholland Drive, and Vanilla Sky, to name only a few, that pointedly portrayed society as either partially a fraud or a shared mass delusion. In these films, characters grappled with rude awakenings, with realizations that taken-for-granted tenants of life were illusory. And while this trend could be partially chalked up to coincidence, it also expressed, weirdly and hauntingly, the emotional temperature of the country following the near-impeachment of Bill Clinton, the controversial election of George W. Bush, as well as, far most traumatically, the successful perpetration, on 9/11, of a massive terrorist act that revealed America to be considerably more vulnerable than many of its citizens would have suspected.
If those films expressed an alienation from society spurned by shock, there’s been another trend in American cinema more recently concerned with characters attempting to re-embrace society with a (hopefully) newfound sense of perspective; asking what’s next in terms of a possible social rehabilitation, and dramatizing the interior demons that stifle mental recovery. This year alone has already seen the release of three oddly similar movies in this vein: To the Wonder, The Lords of Salem (tip of the cap to David Edelstein, for being the first, as far as I know, to note similarities between these two), and Upstream Color all plumb the interior realms of damaged characters who’re searching for a new normal.
Upstream Color is the most successful and striking of these films. On paper, it sounds like a potentially ludicrous synthesis of Terrence Malick and Philip K. Dick, but writer-director Shane Carruth stages the film with a sense of immediacy and mystery that resists convenient synopsis. In the opening, a woman’s memory is effectively wiped clean, leaving her struggling to essentially begin her life afresh. The crime perpetrated against Kris (Amy Seimetz), involving an elaborate form of hypnosis that’s brought about by ingesting an organism resembling a maggot, has an unmistakable connotation of sexual violation. Beneath the fanciful metaphorical elements is essentially a story of a battered woman meeting an equally damaged man.
Those metaphorical elements free Carruth from the tethers of narrative literalism, allowing him to elide most of the traditional movie details of a couple’s union in favor of episodes that emphasize the emotional significance of casual conversations and coincidences. Carruth is alive to the revealing intimacy of everyday textures. We’re particularly allowed to see, and this is too rare in contemporary American films, the charged eroticism of a passing touch in an early stage of a relationship. We can sometimes see nearly into the pores of Kris’s skin as tentative boyfriend Jeff (Carruth) approaches her or dares a kiss or grasp of the hand or shoulder. We feel the specificity of the objects that surround the lovers, such as glasses or kitchen utensils, and we see how the lovers attempt to retreat into their surroundings when feeling especially exposed.
We’re also allowed to see how a major social violation can pervert the meaning of everyday rituals for its victims, imbuing said rituals with a new significance that’s irrevocably malignant. Carruth implies, in a few early moments, that the worms are capable of allowing people to achieve a biological connection with one another that’s potentially transcendent, but that power has been warped by the enterprising criminal who drugs Kris into signing away all of her belongings. Partially brainwashed, partially yearning to return to a form of normalcy, Kris and Jeff both often find themselves repeating portions of the rituals associated with their hypnosis.
The film could have been fatally cold and intellectualized, but Carruth’s images have a fleeting, expressive urgency and even, often, a sense of odd humor. You feel enveloped in the private world of two lovers taking refuge in one another, particularly in a beautiful overhead shot (featured on the film’s poster) of Kris and Jeff intertwined in a bathtub. Carruth, a talented and extremely ambitious filmmaker, clearly loves his symbols and puzzles, but his great talent so far lies in his ability to cast an unusually despairing and poignant spell. Upstream Color is one of the new decade’s great, ambiguous fantasies of the challenge of social re-assimilation.
Upstream Color is a fabulous testament to a filmmaker using a low budget to his advantage. The film’s image is sometimes grainy, the focus often deliberately shallow, but these visual elements ground the more surreal concepts in a recognizable reality. This transfer, most importantly, doesn’t polish the image too much, thereby honoring the lo-fi beauty of filmmaker Shane Carruth’s methods. Colors are striking, particularly the bright explosions of light that are seen in the moments set inside of organisms, and clarity of detail is downright impressive, as you can discern the varying contours of various characters’ skin. The sound mix is also surprisingly rich considering the film’s DIY origins, most notably in terms of presenting Carruth’s score in all of its gorgeous, metallic glory.
Just a few trailers, but this doesn’t really strike this reviewer as a problem. A few documentaries or an audio commentary, even if they were insightful, might dampen or literalize the film’s expressive spell.
No, there aren’t any extras to speak of, and it doesn’t matter. Shane Carruth’s mesmerizing fantasy is still a must-own.