Review: Upstream Color (Carruth, 2013)

Still from the movie Upstream Color

Hmm, where to begin? Having missed Sundance 2013, I first became acquainted with Upstream Color through the film review blog Stand By for Mind Control, where one reviewer called it the best movie of 2013. Well. Since I’m usually in agreement with Evil Genius or Supreme Being (or both?), I just had to check it out.

From the first moments, the film is riveting, but not for the usual reasons of it having a fast-paced plot or emotional resonance. It’s just so strange that I couldn’t rip my eyes away from the screen. I didn’t even want to blink because I was afraid I’d miss something. Then I realized I was breathing shallowly because I was unconsciously concerned that my breath would disturb my concentration. The way it’s shot contributes to this feeling: visceral, disturbing, and utterly engrossing. Watching it, I couldn’t help wondering, “Did someone really think this up? I mean, a human?” (Yes, apparently the same person who thought up Primer, which is also on our to-watch list.)

Of course, having finished the film, I’m not at all sure I’ve “figured it out.” I mean, yes, I can tell you what happened, but in terms of discerning a deeper meaning behind the randomness, I am almost still as puzzled as I was during the viewing. (Why pigs? Why worms? Why blue-tinged orchids? How is everyone connected? Huh?) Usually I am disgusted by the idea of a movie being strange only for the sake of being strange, but for some reason that’s not the sense I get from the indecipherable Upstream Color.

Perhaps a few quotes from writer/director/actor Shane Carruth might illuminate (or not):

This is Heart of Darkness, this is going upriver to solve the problem in some way, put an end to the thing or person who’s been found responsible.


In the natural world they’re starting to recognize that there are these relationships that are happening where these miniature organisms are infecting the brains of flies and ants and other animals and causing in them behavior that is counterintuitive: making an ant climb to the top of a tree and throw itself off and so all the ants collect in a pile at the bottom and a fungus devours them. And nobody would have expected this to happen because you would have needed to be able to focus on what’s in the brain of an ant to explain the behavior. We’re just learning about that — who knows what else we’re learning about? There are so many question marks when it comes to human behavior and even biological behavior.

Reading these quotes it became clear to me that Carruth was attempting to put together a metaphysical rendering of the universe, a rendering that highlighted the connectedness and cyclicality of its components but that still did not deny or obscure the individual. Well, was what he was doing? Haha, I don’t know, actually. The question is, did Carruth leave too much open for interpretation? That is, is the film nonsense or genius?

Understand it or not, though, you certainly will not forget Upstream Color. Utterly original.