Director: Shane Carruth
Screenplay: Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Siemetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Frank Mosley
Producer: Meredith Burke, Shane Carruth, Casey Gooden, Toby Halbrooks, Ben LeClair
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Shane Carruth wowed indie movie fans and festival goers with his Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning low budget time travel film Primer back in 2004. With this debut picking up such acclaim he spent the next eight years developing it's follow up, A Topiary, a sci-fi epic about a group of children who build a giant creature. Despite backing from David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh, it was never finished though, with Carruth claiming "I'd basically wasted my whole life on the project". Carruth fans may never get to see what he had planned, but luckily he picked himself up and brought us another independent mind-bender in Upstream Colour (which actually features some test footage for A Topiary).
Upstream Colour is about, er, how best to describe it? The film begins with an unnamed man experimenting with some small worm like creatures which seem to be able to control and connect minds. One of these is forcefully fed to Kris (Amy Siemetz) and she is kept prisoner for a few days whilst a strange man plays unusual mind games on her, ending with making her give up the deeds to her house and many of her most valuable possessions. On top of this, the worm keeps growing inside her and she is unwillingly drawn to a field at night where the worm is extracted and fed into a pig.
Kris becomes a shell of her former self but her life begins to slowly move forward as Jeff (Carruth himself), a man who was also a victim of the worm-wielding attacker, finds himself strangely drawn to her. They become a couple, although their lives remain haunted by the shadow of the mental 'rape' put upon them. Along the way we meet 'the sampler' (Andrew Sensenig) a found sound collector/composer and pig farmer (of the pigs used in the 'experiments'). We learn that the pigs have a sort of psychic attachment to their entwined humans and feel each other's pains and emotions. The sampler can somehow tap into this connection and uses the pigs to observe the lives of his human victims.
To explain any more of what happens in Upstream Colour would just get messy and it's best for you to see for yourselves. A better way to describe the film is that it's like a cross between the work of Terrence Malick and David Lynch. The first half an hour or so plays out like a deeply unsettling horror thriller with the terrifying concept of the mind-control aspects only being made worse by the grisly body horror of the worms creeping under their victim's skin. After the first 'pig incident' though the horror dies down (although the film remains quietly disturbing throughout) and the film becomes more philosophical, leaving more of what is happening in the film up for interpretation through its abstract, poetic presentation.
Upstream Colour, like Primer before it (which I must shamefully admit I haven't seen yet), sees Carruth take on the majority of major crew roles in the film, from cinematography to editing to composing the soundtrack on top of being the director, writer, producer and co-star. He uses this control to create a fast cutting collage of imagery which throws enough splashes of a story to keep the audience interested, but leaves enough out to keep them guessing as to the meaning behind what is happening. Is it about drug addiction, is it about the surreal nature of love and relationships or is it about something else entirely?
And it's this abstract interpretive nature that will win people over as much as it will put them off, much like in Malick's Tree of Life. For me, like with that film, Upstream Colour is a great piece of work because it feels like little else out there and offers much more food for thought than most releases, blockbuster or otherwise. It did lose me momentarily around the late-mid section and its unwillingness to slow down and let things play out more naturally got frustrating occasionally. The central romance left me a bit cold too, although I don't imagine it was ever supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy. But when you've got a film this original and thought-provoking its hard to complain too much.
Ultimately Upstream Colour is a truly unique and fascinating experience which draws you in and pulls you under its absorbing wash of disturbing thriller/horror aspects and thought provoking poetics. It's not the easiest of films to watch and it certainly won't be for everyone, but if you're willing to let it in you won't regret it.
Upstream Colour is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Metrodome. I watched the DVD version and it looked and sounded great. Unfortunately there are no special features other than a trailer. Maybe explaining too much about the film would spoil it, but personally I'd have loved to have heard Carruth discuss the film and its production.