It’s hard to say what constitutes a spoiler in a cryptic, experimental sci-fi romance thriller like Upstream Color. At its most basic, the film is about a woman, Chris whose life is systematically disassembled as she is forced to swallow a worm that enslaves her to hypnotic suggestion. In this state, she ‘willingly’ signs away her material existence. A few days later and still under suggestion, she is physically drawn to a character known only as The Sampler, who, in a makeshift operating room in a field, transfers the worm from her body to the body of a pig, which joins many other pigs in a large pen. Chris awakens, her life destroyed in her own handwriting, with no one to blame but herself. The film takes as a premise what many films build to over the course of hours: what happens to someone whose personal narrative has been entirely destroyed?
But she’s not alone. There are other pigs with worms from other humans like her. The film becomes a romance that blessedly avoids cliché when Chris (played with understated finesse and a tough sort of grace by Amy Seimetz) meets Jeff, a humiliated stockbroker, who shares her experience, but also remembers nothing. Their attraction to one another is inextricably linked with their traumatic experiences, as well as the real time experiences of their respective pigs. They set about attempting to put their lives back together, uncertain at first about what draws them to one another. How much their love is within their own control is up to the audience to intuit.
Shane Carruth, who plays Jeff, is the writer, director, editor and composer for the film. It’s rare to truly see the vision of one human, untouched, as Carruth has proudly said in interviews, by the corporate forces of Hollywood. The ability to control his own budget and the final product entirely gives Carruth the freedom to make an ambitious, technically experimental film.
So prepare to be a little discombobulated. Carruth scrambles the way we traditionally tell stories. The film is more interested in circles and cycles than it is in lines — in linear narratives. That’s not to say the film feels like work. Carruth’s world is as hypnotic as the little worm around which the story revolves.
It’s hard not to compare Upstream Color to Terrence Malick’s somewhat experimental The Tree of Life. Both films share a mesmerizing attention to detailed and abstract cinematography. They also share sparse use of dialogue and a fascination with the beauty of nature; the seemingly inescapable cycles it creates.
But where The Tree of Life swells with classical music that exemplifies the films grandeur and scope, Upstream Color‘s soundscape is intricately tied to the stories development. It’s clear he takes pleasure in the sounds of everyday, tactile experiences (the gentle clinking of a rock at the bottom of a pool, of paper being folded and crinkled, the sound of a hand moving on white sheets.) Carruth’s filmmaking is detailed and lush— he takes his time with each shot, allowing moments that would otherwise be opaque to slowly sink in.
Chris and Jeff are faced with the impossible task of communicating a trauma they cannot remember and we witness them putting their lives together using only patterns of images, soundscapes, and the subconscious.
Intuition is the door to this film. Like Chris and Jeff, we are faced with a powerful mystery and it’s refreshing to find a filmmaker who trusts his audience to take this journey with him. But the film is not more difficult than it has to be — the mysteriousness, far from being a cerebral game, is necessitated by the plot. You may not always know where the film is going — give in to it and fear not: in Carruth’s world, as the title implies, the true color always bleeds through.