Shane Carruth was known previously for his deliberate obscurity. When his feature film debut, "Primer" (2004) emerged nearly a decade ago it seemed contrarily inscrutable, a film made by and for the mathematical wizards. The film didn't even invited the scrutiny of close reading. "Primer" is now almost defined by its stylish impenetrability, a quality as much a blessing to its cult status as liability to its reputation with serious critics. After that labyrinthine drama, Shane Carruth has followed up on the promise of his debut, with yet another puzzle-box film called "Upstream Color (2013)."
Understanding everything you watch on the screen is not Carruth's agenda, even though he pins us to our seats even when we're not exactly sure what's going on. The film is like watching someone's dream, that's both unnerving and compelling. "Upstream Color" belongs partly to sci-fi and romance genre -- devastating and uplifting in equal parts. Plot synopsis for movies like this hardly does any justice to its scope. So, I will just try to draw out things which might aid the first time-viewers (need not fear for the spoilers).
A mysterious man (Thiago Martins), who experiments on lot of bio-engineered worms, attacks and kidnaps a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz). She seems to be a unwilling participant is some kind of bizarre experiments. The worm is ingested into her body. She is brainwashed and robbed while under the influence of the worm and an apparently hypnosis-inducing drug. All her savings are cleared out. Later, she beings to notice the worms crawling inside her skin and tries to cut them out to no avail.
Kris is rescued by a older gentleman -- using various samples of sounds to attract her to a pig farm -- and through some bizarre surgical procedure, he draws out the worm inside her and deposits it in a pig. Some time later, when Kris was treated for mental disorders, meets and falls madly in love with Jeff (Carruth). Jeff is an unemployed financial-sector employee who not only had the same experience but some of the same thoughts as Amy. A bond forms among them, which might be true love and certainly steels their declaration to get to the bottom of this deep mystery.
This synopsis has omitted some of the film's most baffling elements, like the central place Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" plays in the narrative or why that old gentleman materializes in people's lives. Those things might be an abstract allegory of discovering the world anew, where the literal-minded may be left out. Carruth's direction and complex framework invokes Malick and Lynch, both in narrative and tactile lyricism. Carruth makes even the mundane things, like turning on the water in a sink or stacking poker chips, look like something you’ve never seen before.
"Upstream Color" is densely edited, which blends with the shallow-focus compositions to produce an experience of near-continual disorientation. What's really great about his film is the director's navigation of the river of ideas, along with emphatic acting (especially Seimetz's haunting performance), vivid cinematography and a musical score (also by Carruth) that’s at once triumphal and mournful.
Before watching the film, remember to suspend the old rules and enjoy the delicious feeling of exploring uncharted territory, because some of the points can be maddening (but only if you let them). "Upstream Color" presents us with a glimpse of the vastness of existence and of our inner nature. In the end, you will feel like you've been pulled into a scary yet compelling dream.
Upstream Color -- IMDb