Upstream Color

Upstream Color (2013)


Actually I take back the warning. I don’t think there can be spoilers to “Upstream Color.” How could you spoil it? What would you reveal that might give away the goods? What are the goods?

A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is given a plant, or a worm, that allows her to be hypnotized by a character simply called, in the credits, Thief (Thiago Martins), who puts her on a binge path: he keeps her up for long periods drinking only water and has her extract her fortune, $36,000, from the bank. Then he lets her go. She eats all the food from the refrigerator and sleeps for long periods. At some point she wakes up but does she ever wake up? And isn’t this a lot of work for $36K? Surely there are better people for the Thief to hypnotize.

Written byShane Carruth
Directed byShane Carruth
StarringAmy Seimetz
Shane Carruth
Andrew Sensenig
Thiago Martins

Sorry, logic. The movie’s not about logic. It’s about mood and atmosphere. It’s dreamlike and hypnotic and abstract. It’s some amalgam of Malick and Lynch but without the clarity.

Early on, the movie feels like a metaphor for substance abuse—you wake up jobless, penniless, and with the contents of the refrigerator all over the floor and the front of your clothes. You wake up confused and shamed. In the aftermath, you struggle to figure out who you are and where you belong.

Kris winds up commuting by train to a lesser job, where she meets, vaguely, Jeff (writer-director-editor-composer Shane Carruth), who vaguely romances her, and even more vaguely marries her. He too has a past. The same past? Hypnotized by the worm? Their story together, such as it is, is intercut with a character the credits simply call The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a sound technician who also runs a pig farm that is harvesting those hypnotic worms, and who seems to be trying to introduce them into the ecosystem. This is done in the usual scientific way: by forcing them into the intestines of pigs, then gathering the offspring of those pigs into a canvas bag and dumping it into a river, where they die, decompose, and grow into beautiful flowers. Which might also be hypnotic. Or something.

Basically, “Upstream Color” is the arthouse version of the paranoid thriller just as “Spring Breakers” was the arthouse version of the exploitation film and “To the Wonder” was the arthouse version of the love story. 2013 has been a helluva year for bad arthouse versions of popular genre flicks.

But the critics loved it: an 88% rating from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. One wonders if they were hypnotized into their good reviews.

I actually read these reviews looking for reasons to like “Upstream Color” but I came away with more reasons to not like it. These quotes, remember, are from the positive reviews:

  • “Even as I write this, I’m aware of making the various building blocks used in ‘Upstream Color’ sound impossibly silly and arch.” —Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
  • “However you watch it, it’s a movie that will mean more for you if you don’t worry about what’s happening ...” —Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press
  • “It’s not that it’s not intriguing, but Carruth has withheld any sense of glue or cohesion or even a clue as to what he’s getting at.” —Margaret Pomeranz, At the Movies

To be fair, the movie is more about enigma and inscrutability and identity, and Carruth is obviously talented; but throughout I kept asking myself, “Is this how life feels?” My answer? Kinda, sorta, at times. Then Carruth would cut to the pig farmer.

To be unfair, the critical acclaim for movies like “Upstream Color” (and “Spring Breakers”) is the kind of thing that kills interest in what critics have to say.

One final quote. It’s from Patricia when the credits appeared signaling the end of the movie:

“No. Really? The fuck?”

—December 31, 2013

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard