Upstream Color (2013)

“They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

There’s no doubt that this is a perplexing film to discuss, for reasons that I’ll get into shortly. I want to call it a science-fiction film, but that label has connotations of future technology and spaceships, whereas this is very much grounded in our world. In fact, it might be better to be more specific and say it’s a biology-fiction film, as it’s less about crafting a story from imagined technology as about imagined connections between living creatures, flora and fauna and the earth itself. It also feels a little like a murder-mystery thriller, but there’s no murder in it (well there is, but that’s by the by), so maybe a life-mystery thriller would be more apt, if that were even a term.

Which brings us to the perplexity at its core, but first a brief digression. When I think about the films I’ve loved, there’s a scene from one of my favourites that always comes into my mind. It’s a short sequence, from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1999), a flashback showing a small boy in a field, framed against the sky. He’s standing on a bale of hay, its soft material rendered solid enough to support a person by being packed tightly together, throwing some strands of hay into the air and watching it float on the wind, before the film cuts back to an extreme close-up of riveted steel flooring in a warship. I can never be sure why those brief images stick so strongly in my mind, but it’s something to do with evanescence, the connections between people (different yet united through memory), between the tangible forces of both nature and humanity, and the contrast of textures and moods. But that scene somehow seems apt to this film of Shane Carruth’s because of the very fleeting, impressionistic way it conveys feelings and connections, and it’s like Carruth has extended this poetic snippet of Malick to feature length.

Those who are familiar with Malick’s way of unfolding stories, especially in his more recent films like To the Wonder, will surely not have trouble following Carruth’s own methods. Yet one should not need to have enjoyed Malick’s films to find Upstream Color a joy. For quite aside from the lack of any voiceover narration here, where Malick uses this elliptical and impressionistic style to try and get at pure emotional states, Carruth seems to shelter beneath it the mechanics of a pulpy genre story. At some level you could say it’s do with criminals and scientists, connivance and experiments, and two people trying to piece together the truth of their broken lives, but that would be to reduce the film to too little. For while the style the film adopts is a very effective way of making what is clearly a small budget go a long way (and Carruth is here the director, writer, cinematographer, composer, actor and probably many other roles), it’s also used to make these bare bones of a B-movie mystery thriller go a lot further and deeper.

So to that plot. There’s a Thief who kicks off the film’s chain of events by abducting the central character Kris (Amy Seimetz) at a bar, apparently using a bug to gain control over her mind and help him to extort from her all her money. The twisted scientist figure is not really that at all, but rather a man only referred to as The Sampler (played by Andrew Sensenig). He may exhibit some trappings of Mengele-like experimentation on damaged humans — it’s unclear to me what his connection is to the Thief — but he’s a pig farmer not a scientist, and functions more as an observer and collector. He collects sounds from nature that he makes into recordings on his own record label (“Quinoa Farm”), but also harvests the bugs from the Thief’s victims and feeds them to his pigs. Thus is effected a link between humans and animals, and between sight and sound. Following this ordeal, Kris meets a chap on the subway and slowly it becomes clear they share a mysterious connection — many mysterious connections — and things progress from there.

But the plot is not where the connections are really made evident, for dialogue is an often insignificant part of the film’s overall strategy. It’s in the use and repetition of images, textures, sounds and phrases, the latter chiefly drawn from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, that touchstone of back-to-nature self-reliance. The Thief makes his victims copy out pages from that book, linking them together in paper chains like strands of the DNA that underpin its bio-sci-fi scenario. Scenes and images are similarly folded into one another, finding echoes throughout the film. For example, there are marks that connect the two central characters (small scars on their ankles) as well as shared memories, but there are connections branching off in every direction, most notably with those pigs, to whom the human characters and their life cycles seem linked.

Quite what this all adds up to is also very much with the viewer. I was drawn to thinking of Todd Haynes’s film [safe] (1995), as much for its blend of widescreen visuals with sonic cues, yet the characters in Carruth’s film don’t journey out from the city in order to sever connections with the world but rather seem to extend those connections. This is not a horror film, but some form of psychological mystery, and — without I hope providing any ‘spoilers’, whatever those might be in the context of such an opaque narrative — the progress is towards healing rather than further pain. But the flood of images is so dense and impressionistic that I’d need to watch this film a few more times to be able to really do it justice in a review. Thankfully it’s a film I can imagine doing this for, and for those viewers who are open to the experience, it’s a rich and rewarding one.

[PS I must admit the quote I’ve led this review with was found by searching for the word “stream” in Walden — and it occurs a reasonable amount — and not because I’ve actually read the book. The “upstream” part of the title actually refers to DNA sequencing, but I quite liked the quote in any case.]

Director/Writer/Cinematographer Shane Carruth; Starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 September 2013.

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