A singular and highly accomplished independent film, Upstream Color is philosophical science fiction in the tradition of the French nouvelle vague, seasoned with a dash of Cronenbergian body horror. Like the SF films that emerged from the nouvelle vague – Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime je t’aime, Godard’s Alphaville, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch – Upstream Color foregoes studio sets and elaborate special effects in favor of real locations and a concern with fundamental existential issues like the nature of free will, memory, perception, and time – what Raymond Durgnat once called the science fiction of “inner space.”
The body horror, reminiscent of early Cronenberg films like Rabid and Shivers (aka They Came From Within), comes from the film’s MacGuffin, a worm or grub found in the roots of orchids that secretes a drug, prized in certain circles for its psychotropic properties. If the worm is implanted in a victim, he or she becomes a virtual zombie, susceptible to any suggestion, obeying any command.
To say the film is enigmatic is an understatement. This might be the WTF film of 2013. Its complex story is told almost entirely through its visuals. There is minimal dialogue, and what there is of it is fragmentary, heard – or overhead – in bits and pieces. The visuals themselves are elliptical – we might be shown only the beginning, the middle, or the end of an action and have to infer the rest of it. Sometimes it is uncertain whether what we are looking at is literal or metaphoric. Chronology is scrambled. But the effect is not off-putting. On the contrary, this is an extraordinarily compelling film. Because we have to piece the narrative together ourselves, we pay closer attention.
Moreover, there is a sound basis for the film’s peculiarities of style. The two main characters, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (writer/director Shane Carruth) are both victims of the worm – both brain-damaged. Consequently, we experience reality as they do.
*Spoilerphobes take note* What follows is a simple roadmap to the movie, merely the tip of the iceberg, designed to make your viewing of it that much easier. There are plenty of mysteries left for you to figure out on your own, and your reading of the film may differ significantly from mine.
Confounding as the film may appear on a first viewing, it has a classical 3-act structure.
ACT I: LOSS – A character known only as “Thief” abducts Kris and implants her with the worm. Under the influence of the worm, Kris is ordered to perform a variety of tasks, some apparently meaningless – such as memorizing and transcribing the entirety of Thoreau’s Walden – and others that make more sense, like cashing out all her assets and turning them over to Thief. Later, she is found by a pig farmer, referred to in the credits as “The Sampler,” who extracts the worm from her body and transfers it to one of his pigs.
ACT II: ROMANCE – Kris wakes up by the side of the road with no memory of the preceding events. However, she soon discovers that she is unemployed and broke. She hooks up with a young man, Jeff, who is similarly damaged. Although neither of them realize it at first, Kris and Jeff have both been victimized by the worm, both of their worms have been transferred to pigs in possession of the Sampler, and both of them share a subconscious telepathic connection with each other and with the pigs.
At this point, the worm’s metaphorical nature becomes apparent. Kris might have arrived at a similar condition if she been abducted and date-raped under the influence of a real drug like Rohypnol that left her with no memory of the violation. The film, on its most essential level, is a story of two emotionally damaged people in love.
In the meantime, we watch the Sampler, who also seems to have a telepathic connection to the worm victims, spookily observing their daily lives (without actually leaving his farm!) like one of the unseen angels in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire. We also see him recording various natural sounds – running water, tumbling bricks, a rock sliding down the curve of a drainpipe – that he converts into droning electronic music, the same music that we hear as the film’s score.
ACT III: CATHARSIS – Kris and Jeff, together, recover their memory sufficiently to trace their disturbance to its source, the pig farm, where Kris shoots the Sampler/pig farmer. Director Carruth has suggested that Kris’s rage might be directed at the wrong target. Is the pig farmer in league with the Thief and other worm harvesters? Or is he an independent good Samaritan who frees the victims from their affliction? If so, why doesn’t he just kill the worms instead of transferring them to the pigs? Is he guilty of nothing worse than voyeurism? It is a measure of the film’s ambiguity that the first time I watched it, I thought Kris had shot the wrong man, while the second time I watched it, I thought the Sampler deserved everything he got.
Talk about a one-man band. Shane Carruth not only wrote, directed, and edited this feature; he also produced and DISTRIBUTED it, completely apart from the Hollywood studio system. And played the leading male role. And composed the eerie Music From the Hearts of Space style electronic score which is one of the film’s strongest assets.
I can certainly see why Carruth would want to take the independent route. When, in the 1970’s, the groundbreaking title designer, Saul Bass, attempted to do something similar, i.e., make a science fiction film, Phase IV, whose story was told in almost entirely visual terms, the studio (Paramount) butchered it, adding a superfluous narration to “explain” things, and deleting the movie’s avant-garde ending.
Even at its most obscure, Upstream Color keeps the viewer involved thanks to the aforesaid music score and the flow of its nature-derived imagery – sunlight, water, animals, insects, and birds (see still at top of page) and the archetypal blue flower motif. The consistent beauty of the imagery gives the movie the feel of poetry:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
(“The Sick Rose” by William Blake.)
 The film’s ending has recently been restored.