Upstream Color (2013)
8/10 Natural Instincts
Well that was different.
Upstream Color is about a woman who finds her entire being under the control of a stranger after falling victim to a drug unlike any other. When she’s released from her high, she finds her life in shambles, unable to recall what she’s done or who’s to blame. Not long after, she crosses paths with a man who, unbeknownst to her, has gone through similar circumstances. Their connection is undeniable, they start going steady, and as she tries to pick up the pieces, he helps her to remember where things went wrong.
So it’s been almost a decade now since Shane Carruth was kind enough to grace us with his debut effort, Primer. For those who haven’t seen it (especially those who dig time travel), it’s high time you took care of that situation. But for those who have, I think I speak for the majority of us in these next few sentences:
Primer may not have been the time travel movie we were expecting or used to, and it probably took more than one viewing to truly appreciate/wrap our heads around it, but once we drank the Kool-Aid, it was hard to deny everything that was so damn brilliant about it. It was further proof that you didn’t need a big budget to astound, that all you need is a great idea and an intelligent script that wasn’t afraid to do something different. Oh yes, it was something else, and we’ve been waiting very patiently to see what Carruth would do next.
And while the meat of it couldn’t be more different, a lot of the things that make Upstream Color so magnetic are the very things that I adore about Primer. Yet for all that the former has in common with the latter, the odd thing about it is that it’s utterly unique.
Now, I’m no expert on the matter, but if you’ve ever wanted a crash course in experimental film making, this isn’t a bad place to get acquainted. Right from the start, it’s all very strange, and under someone else’s direction, the end result could have been very, very stupid. Surrogate swines, hypnomaggots and telepathic teens are just a few of the colorful things you’ll encounter here, and as weird as it all sounds, it works for what it is. As for why it works, all praise be unto Carruth.
It’s because he tells this story with intention and care, letting his audience do the legwork rather than baby them along so that everything’s crystal. It makes all the difference, and with each seamlessly-constructed scene that drives the plot forward, he provides us with just enough info so that we know what’s going on. It’s just enough so that if you’re not paying attention, it won’t be long before you’re hopelessly lost, and even if you are paying attention, you’ll only be able to fool yourself into thinking you get it. Oh yes, it leaves much to interpretation, but it’s all so unusual and it leads us on so well that it’s straight-up hypnotic in turn. It’s less like watching a movie than it is an abstract painting in motion.
What can I say, as nice as it is to just look at and absorb, it’s even nicer to be treated like I’ve got a goddamn brain. If this is the payoff, I’ll take the head trip every time.
From the outset alone, there’s a whole lot to account for. But as for what it’s really about, what it all really means, your guess is as good as mine. As you can imagine, it makes for one hell of a talking point and it’s the kind of thing that folks will likely be talking about until Carruth follows it up in the year 2023. Unfortunately, the catch is that as much as I could throw back a couple beers and talk about this sucker ’til I’m slurring, I imagine that’s its a pretty hard sell for those who aren’t intrigued.
As it likely goes without saying by now, if you’re looking for a straightforward moviegoing experience driven by true-to-life conflicts and relatable resolutions, steer the hell clear from Upstream Color. The only movie I can imagine comparing this to is Eraserhead, and that might be a crap comparison considering that I’ve never even seen it. I wasn’t expecting to make two David Lynch comparisons in two consecutive reviews, but yeah, this has got some Lynch in it. At any rate, it’s an iffy movie to recommend if only because it’s so contrary to what we’re used to getting from this industry. But by the same token, that’s a big reason why I’m so taken with it.
Maybe it has to do with Steven Soderbergh name-calling Shane Carruth in his glorious tirade on the “State of Cinema,” but it seems that we need Upstream Color now more than ever. Because for everything that I love about movies, the way movies are approached is terribly formulaic and it’s a formula that is rarely strayed from. It’s gotten to the point where originality and talent have fallen to the wayside so that we can remake more stuff that doesn’t warrant a remake, and I think we can all agree that that’s just bad business. Not to say that it’s a bad formula as it’s proven to work like gangbusters over the years, and though I’m aware that movies are indeed a business, it is first and foremost art. If anything, Upstream Color is a damn good reminder of that.
I don’t know, I just never understood why that formula became “the norm” and why there aren’t more film makers out there trying to go against the grain. That’s why I’m still defending The Tree of Life and those goddamn dinosaurs, and that’s why Upstream Color does warrant a recommendation: because it’s bold, it’s unfamiliar and it doesn’t compromise on its vision.
I don’t expect everyone to dig this one as much as I did, and that’s perfectly understandable, perfectly okay. It ain’t the most accessible movie of the year and it’s a short list of friends that I would have invited to see it with me. The relationship between these two characters could have used some work, too. At least give us some smiles, guys.
Then again, that’s not really the kind of movie this is. In immediate hindsight, that’s actually a petty-ass non-complaint to even bring up in light of everything else that succeeds here. For me, the lasting impression was more one of appreciation and admiration than escapism or enjoyment, and holy hell, is there no shortage of things to appreciate and admire. So as I stand here on my soapbox, raging against the status quo, still wondering what it all means, one can’t help but be hopeful about the State of Cinema when there’s artists and originals like Carruth to shake things up.
It’s definitely not the movie that I was expecting it to be, but hey, conformity’s for suckers anyway.