When Shane Carruth’s Primer emerged at Sundance nearly a decade ago, it seemed perversely inscrutable, a left-brain puzzle film made by and for the mathematically inclined. An intimidating degree of obfuscation, of course, was very much part of the point, our confusion before both the mechanics and implications of time travel designed to reflect the characters’ own, but the film’s conceptual rigor nevertheless invited the scrutiny of close reading. The notion that a film ought to or even can be “solved” in some meaningful sense, an enduring misconception of the function of criticism and typically a massive waste of one’s intellectual resources, reached a zenith of fashionability in the early 2000s, as nominally labyrinthine dramas like Donnie Darko and Memento briefly captured the popular imagination by substituting sophomoric clue-scrounging for the process of actual thought. Primer, with its combination of willful obscurity and formal austerity, appeared conveniently on-trend, and many gravitated to the film precisely because it seemed to welcome this sort of obsessive dissection. Whatever its grander aspirations, Primer came to be defined almost exclusively by its chic impenetrability, a quality as much a boon to its burgeoning cult status as liability to its reputation with serious critics, many of whom perceived in the film’s conspicuous intricacy a demand for intellectual validation, as though its chief purpose were to confirm its author’s capacity to frustrate and confuse.
It’s taken nine years for Carruth to follow up on the promise of his byzantine debut, during which time he might have penned a nesting-doll epic so structurally elaborate that it couldn’t be parsed without recourse to diagrammatic analysis—a practice in which Carruth’s admirers would no doubt happily indulge. But Upstream Color, which premiered at Sundance to a combination of bafflement and acclaim, is no obtuse Turing machine fashioned from spare parts in the garage. The film instead upends expectations by resolutely abandoning Carruth’s most recognizable characteristics as director. Where Primer was cold, ascetic, and scientifically rigorous, Upstream Color is lush, rhythmic, and deeply sensual, striking on a purely aesthetic level, the whole enterprise less interested in a framework of narrative complication than in the formal pleasures that narrative inspires. And the formal pleasures are endless: From its exquisite, sun-streaked digital photography to its gleaming ambient score, both remarkably products of Carruth himself, this is a film of exceptional beauty. If Primer seemed the work of a kind of calculating intelligence, Upstream Color suggests the more impressive quality of perception, which it directs in earnest toward conceptions of identity, commitment, and love. Though complexly devised, it moves with such elegance and effortlessness that the act of interpretation, even when seemingly needed, becomes secondary to luxuriating in the design.
Not that it seems that way at first. Carruth’s oblique approach to narrative practice all but bypasses basic exposition, requiring its audience to remain attentive to suggestion and, more importantly, comfortable with occasionally feeling confused. Upstream Color implies more than it explicates, and though what’s implied is usually clear, drawing these constant connections requires a degree of commitment rarely asked by American cinema. But what distinguishes this constant hum of synapse-firing from the methods of outright puzzle films is that it represents just one layer, and not even the most important layer, of a very dense work, one whose interests are decidedly loftier. Because for all its supposed narrative opacity, marked as it is by ellipsis and ambiguity, Upstream Color always feels emotionally coherent, which was presumably the intended effect. Regardless of whether one fully comprehends the story’s particulars, the experience of watching the film remains intensely transportive, resonating long after the credits roll and the lights come up. It has an intention most puzzle films lack by design: Whatever its apparent complexity, Upstream Color just wants to move you.
To that end, the film is most plainly a romantic drama, though the romance it develops occupies only one of its three distinctive suites (in terms of traditional structure, it would be inaccurate to describe them as “acts”). The first of these proceeds as a sort of indirect heist picture, in which a young woman named Kris (an astounding Amy Seimetz) is robbed while under the influence of an apparently hypnosis-inducing drug. The drug itself, contained in tiny grubs which grow beneath certain flowers, is central to the film not only as its high-concept sci-fi technology (one whose capacity to control others through auto-suggestion is mined for its intriguing cautionary-tale appeal), but also for the manner in which it connects the characters on an initially chemical and eventually almost spiritual level, its presence a lightly sketched metaphor for the invisible stuff that binds us all. These early scenes, which find Kris commanded to follow a series of meticulous and entirely arbitrary instructions for busywork before being lead to mortgage her home and empty her accounts, show Carruth operating at his most enjoyably clever, the writing a fine balance of genre-riffing and manic invention. Once it becomes clear exactly how this villain intends to enact his robbery, one can only marvel at the novelty of the approach.
But it’s once the second suite begins and the film shifts tonal gears that Upstream Color loosens its grip on the brain and lunges no less successfully toward the heart. Kris, having lost her job as a result of an extended—and, to her, quite inexplicable—absence, meets Jeff (Carruth), another victim of the same drug-induced scam, and the two are silently drawn to one another, connected through the lingering effect of their experience. The grubs that caused their hypnosis, extracted by a man credited as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), were surgically transferred into the bodies of pigs, the essence of each passed on and shared between them all. Some residue of Kris and Jeff now resides in two pigs on a farm; as they fall in love, so too do the pigs, and when one feels pain it’s felt in turn by the other. Their love story becomes a reflection of animal nature, part of one continuing cycle. It’s not hard to see that Upstream Color, despite operating well within the realm of imaginative science fiction, is working principally in metaphor, and in the process is attempting to rejuvenate some of the romantic drama’s most tired clichés. We all know that feeling, when we meet a new lover, of being drawn to them in a way that is seemingly beyond our control—and so in Upstream Color that feeling literally is beyond its characters’ control, a function of spiritual compulsion.
As the film builds toward its third and most exhilarating suite, a nearly wordless passage of images and music in which a family seeks a resolution, Upstream Color drifts further and further into veiled allegory, relying less on conventional narrative devices than its capacity to suggest and evoke. An early climax involving, of all things, a sack of newborn piglets is astonishing for how lucidly it articulates a very real pain through metaphor, capturing the devastation of loss and the protectiveness of parenthood better than a more straightforward expression could have. This is a film about many things (our compulsion to narrativize personal tragedy and explain away abstraction, the inexplicability of desire, the transformative effective of a relationship, the gradual blurring of self-identity when one becomes too close to another), but one thing it’s clearly not about are thieves that hypnotize people by drugging them, other than in the most basic and uninteresting sense. That’s precisely why the details, obscure though they often seem, are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is aesthetic, sensual, and deeply felt. What matters is what’s real.