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USA 2013
Directed by
Shane Carruth
96 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4.5 stars

Upstream Color

Synopsis: Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted, brainwashed and defrauded. Much later, as she is getting her life back on track, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who eventually reveals that for reasons he can’t remember, he became a corporate criminal. Their strange love story reveals a bizarre ecosystem centered around a small grub with psychic properties.

Since this is one of the most buzzed about and anticipated independent films of the year, I’ll start by addressing that matter. Believe the hype. Upstream Color is one of those furiously original films that come by only every once in a while. And that will frustrate some. If you want a straight narrative experience, you should let this one pass you by. At the Melbourne International Film Festival, there were people who walked out of the screening. But for me, it pushed just about every button I have. But that’s because I love offbeat science fiction, especially old 60’s New Wave science fiction, which is probably the most appropriate classification for Upstream Color.

The New Wave writers were tired of space opera and wanted to explore “inner space”, using the tropes of science fiction to explore the mind, social constructs and human connection. To me, that’s part of what makes Upstream Color interesting. The science fiction element is a backdrop: it is the impact of the parasitic psychic grub being used to brainwash the couple that is mainly explored.  And as with all good science fiction there’s the joy of discovery as more facts about the strange larval life-form and its bizarre properties are revealed.

But the heart of the film is the relationship between Kris and Jeff, two deeply traumatised people who are putting their lives back together after events that they can’t even recall have upended everything. Not that the film approaches even this directly. Instead we get an overlapping series of edits jumping across temporal zones and showing us two people slowly blending into each other. It’s an intensely oblique experience at times, but I found all my questions answered. Everything falls into place, which is surprising given the elliptical approach taken to the material. Even the title makes perfect sense and you realize that it encapsulates everything that’s being explored. I quibbled over maybe two minutes of the film’s run-time, fearing that maybe it had squandered its chance for a perfect ending. I shouldn’t have worried, the final image is one of the most unusual visualizations of contentment I’ve seen in quite a while. It ties things together in a unique way.

Shane Carruth is a man possessed of a particular vision. His previous film, the 2004 time travel story Primer, has a massive cult following, and to this day has people arguing about the multiple timelines at play. I don’t feel this has that level of complexity, but it’s a richer experience.




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