Years after Carruth’s cult hit Primer, Carruth’s finds himself playing in the same field with many of the same toys. But with an even more deliriously cryptic plot under a truly horrific mind-bending sci-fi concept, Carruth’s absolutely validates himself as an astonishingly original and inspired cinematic auteur.
Upstream Color (2013) dir. Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Tiago Martins, Andrew Sensenig
By Alan Bacchus
Even after almost ten years later Primer and Upstream Color and feel like two sides of the same coin and the exact kind of film Primer fans wanted to see from Shane Carruth, proving he’s not one-hit wonder, but a legitimate cinematic genius. In fact, it would not be out of bounds to compare Shane Carruth’s remarkable comeback after the nine year absence to Terrence Malick’s glorious comeback from obscurity of The Thin Red Line.
Part of the thrill of Primer was the combination of brilliant stylistic flourishes and narrative unconventionality under his palpable low budget feel. Like the aesthetic connections of Malick's work over the decades, and when so much of the technical tools of cinema has changed, Upstream Color is cut from the same cloth as Primer. And admirably Carruth pushes his aesthetic even further to the edge, pushing the boundaries of genre and narrative conventions.
The broad strokes of Carruth plotting is clear, a man and woman mysteriously drawn together due to the after effects of a hypnotic organic drug administered to the both of them as part of an elaborate criminal scheme. An absolutely brilliant sequence of scenes early on establishes a gnarly scam perpetrated by a clandestine group of scientists/biologists who discover a worm born from a certain kind of orchid flower which, when ingested by a human, renders them like a soulless zombie and ripe for exploitation. Not unlike the pair of engineers who use their time machine to make money on the stock market in Primer, these biologists make money administering the worm to unsuspecting bystanders and systematically over the course of weeks and maybe months bleed them dry of their bank accounts.
One such person is Kris (Seimetz), who after waking up from the nightmarish turmoil of the bio-thief played by Tiago Masters, is completely dumbstruck and emotionally destroyed. But some casual glances with a fellow train commuter Jeff (Carruth) lead to a deep connection through their mutual experiences with this mysterious organism. Their investigation leads to an unnamed man (but referred to in notes as The Sampler) who seems to have the ability to extract the organism into the body of newborn pigs and who might hold the secret to recovering their lost memories.
Of course all this sounds absolutely ludicrous on paper and certainly the collection of imagery of pigs and orchids and psychedelic worms seems to create existential linkages as broad as the Tree of Life, and yet everything seems just right.
The narrative is played with the same kind of montage style as Tree of Life. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. And with a free association of sound and image the effect is like floating down a river but steered with confidence by the film’s director.
Carruth consciously hides the narrative connections and details of the plot within the minute fractions of his edits and compositions. It’s a truly suspenseful ride, and most importantly we feel secure that all the details are actually somewhere in Carruth’s head. So with the broad strokes and tone crystal clear, we have no trouble letting our minds go where Carruth wants to takes us.