A woman is a film editor; she’s good at her job; she’s professional. Then suddenly, she’s in a kind of a trance, taking the orders of a mysterious stranger, swearing off solid food, quoting Thoreau and sitting mesmerized in silence. At the behest of the stranger, she, as if in a dream, empties her bank account, telling the stranger word for word what the bank teller told her. Soon she is back on solid food and wakes up, herself again perhaps, in bed but with worms visibly coursing underneath her skin. Suddenly she starts moving; she doesn’t know where she’s going but she is drawn to a farm in the woods. There stands another stranger, expecting her. He’s been broadcasting a low tone, one that the worms in her body respond to, and that’s why she’s here. Soon the stranger has surgically removed the worms and placed them into the body of a pig. She wakes up again. She doesn’t remember anything, none of it; she is fired from her job when she can’t explain her absence and is perplexed to find out she has no money.
This is Kris (Amy Seimetz) and this is the setup of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), a metaphysical creeper about strange and devious behavior. Kris gets back on her feet to a degree but the mysterious lost period continues to elude her. She meets Jeff (Carruth) on the bus and is drawn to him for unexplainable reasons. He seems normal enough, so does Kris for that matter, but soon they begin to act strangely, and in complementary ways. It seems that Jeff has a similar unaccounted for hole in his past, and he reveals memories from his youth that she insists are hers and vice versa. They examine clues they do not understand and go to places for reasons they can’t grasp but for the vague notion it will explain what’s happened to them, why and how they can reverse it.
This is a strange movie, hypnotic and disjointed. Its pieces are so legion and varied I can’t claim to have put them all together. Kris and Jeff are two in a series of victims in a drug ring, run by the first stranger, known as Thief (Tiago Martins) who, working with the second stranger, The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), creates a cycle of narcotics that allows the pair to profit from the willing, though unconscious, surrender of people’s personal wealth. The mind-altering drug is housed in the worms that, once they are finished in the humans, must be repopulated in the pigs, who in turn, for gruesome reasons, sustain a strain of flowers that nourish the worms. If it’s confusing, now you know a little of how Kris and Jeff feel, strung out and disconcerted. The effect of watching the movie, however, is far from frustrating. Though I’ve spelled out what happens here more clearly than Carruth ever does, the images and pulsating rhythm of the filmmaking are such that a thoughtful viewer will be swept along in them.
The movie has the effect of being in the same kind of trance that bedevils our heroes: sleepy yet urgent, methodical yet harried, a mishmash of sounds, moments, sights. It’s remarkable that Carruth can create something narrative at all from these images, almost all of which suggest the connection between Kris and Jeff, between Kris and Jeff and the others who have gone through this, between Kris and Jeff and nature, sound and psyche, and everything and everything. In the Faulknerian deluge of pictures and sounds exists a Faulknerian message about compassion, the connection that exists between us all, and how the corruption of that connection is a worthy foe indeed.
Upstream Color reminded me of 12 Years a Slave (2013), partly because I saw the two movies in close proximity but also because of its underlying message. What does a metaphysical trope of weirdness about mind-controlling worms and narcotic pigs have to do with a direct and realistic rendering of the horrors of slavery? They’re both about the breaking of cycles, the fight of compassion against the heartless bottom line. Of course, 12 Yearswas about a real and ongoing cycle and Upstream Color is a fantasy, science fiction, but the messages, told wildly differently, are the same and that’s one of the value of a human life.
The two movies also share a common confusion in their victims (though here it’s used as a suspense device). Kris and Jeff don’t know what’s happening to them and why (hell, we in the audience can’t even be sure), and that confusion and frustration are a driving force to the urgency as they try to sort out their lives and unravel the mystery. This makes the movie, which is principally an atmospheric and reflective poem, a legitimately thrilling endeavor, infused with the kind of breathtaking tension of a Hollywood actioner.
This is a remarkable movie, alternately lyrical and concrete, masterfully playing with the tension of both and ultimately being about more than it appears. The movie is enigmatic and intriguing enough to hold your attention while it’s happening, but what distinguishes Upstream Color is the way it stays with you, penetrating you in a way that few movies do—thinking less about its plot and more about its style and what it all means. Baffling and intoxicating, it’s to be savored.