In 2004 one-man film crew Shane Carruth perplexed and astounded audiences with his overtly experimental and frugal debut Primer. It went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and now, nearly a decade later he returns with his follow up. Upstream Color is in the same vein as its predecessor with Carruth starring, directing, writing, producing, shooting, composing and distributing. But with a plethora of different themes and a variety of locations this is a much more ambitious piece of work.
Having the bravery and audacity to skew narrative conventions should be recognised , but Upstream Color is almost nigh on impossible to follow from the outset. We witness an almost dreamlike succession of events: Kris (Seimetz) is given a pill containing a grub that enters her body and somehow hypnotises her. From here on in she enters an almost machine like state of subservience where she will blindly follow any command that she is given. It’s certainly an intriguing prologue but the more the minutes tick away the more it tests the patience of the viewer.
As soon as Jeff (Carruth) enters the picture, a man who seems to have endured a similar experience to Kris, the film dissolves into self-indulgent wishwash. Carruth seems to be under the impression that by providing answers and following narrative logic he’s somehow dumbing down his ‘vision’ and he seems so obsessed with proving how profound and intelligent it is that it becomes deeply unlikable to behold. It doesn’t help that he stars in the film with his lack of acting experience on display for all to see.
There are some glimpses of ingenuity and at times it almost scrapes Lynchian brilliance. There are several scenes in which we see a solitary sound designer (Sensenig) capturing natural noises such as tumbling bricks or a stone being rolled down a corrugated iron tube. These moments are eerily melancholic and strangely captivating and they really show Carruth’s strengths as a curious experimentalist. But it’s these fragments of innovation that make the film such a frustrating experience to sit through as they’re so smothered by the rest of the navel-gazing padding.
As an overall package Upstream Color (a title which apparently has no significance) feels like a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes and Carruth’s vagueness and inability to deliver coherent answers in Q&As only draws attention to this. It just feels like the film refuses to deliver meaning simply because there isn’t any and it would rather leave itself open to interpretation than try to explain itself.
Carruth clearly possesses an impressive array of talents, it’s just a shame he insists on parading them around in such a highbrow and self-aggrandising fashion. This project is attempting high-art status, and at times it feels like the work of an auteur, but for the most part it’s a casserole of unfinished ideas and half-baked themes. But that’s the whole point of experimentalism; some things work and some things don’t.