Upstream Color (2013)

Ready your preparatory standard procedures for filmmaking pretentiousness. Also, maybe just a couple small spoilers which are revealed early on anyway.

“Upstream Color” is an independent film, written, directed, and acted by second-timer Shane Carruth (Primer). One of my professors in college spent the better half of a class session raging about it when he saw its premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January. His general impressions were that of intrigue, wonder, and a higher form of confusion. Practically anyone who has had the chance to see “Upstream Color” would agree I’m sure.

I mentioned pretentiousness earlier because many films that are edited in a timeline jumping, non-linear fashion are usually credited as such, or worse. Within the first five minutes of this film, you quickly realize it will not be something you can easily digest. I once heard a quote about Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, where the reviewer (possibly Roger Ebert) said something to the effect of, “this is a film that is to be enjoyed for its complex story during your first viewing. It is only after you have made sense of its plot that you can return for a second visit, this time attempting to recognize the thematic message the film works to convey.” While I agree with Ebert, this is a movie that probably needs more explanation after your first watch, or perhaps a second time through to understand things more deeply.

I’ll try not to spoil anything, which isn’t saying much, considering even if I explained the plot, it would still seem non-sensical to you. We start off with some grub worms of some sort, living around some kind of plant with a curiously blue tint to it. We soon realize that tint is being scraped off and through some foreign process, with the help of our little worm friend, is made into a pill. Enter Kris (Amy Seimetz). She works for a film agency or something, and is eventually tazed and force-fed this pill. We soon gather that the pill allows the pill curator, or the Thief (Thiago Martins) to control Kris. As long as she doesn’t sleep or eat, the Thief keeps her busy with mind-numbingly tedious tasks, including reading and writing from Henry David Thoreau’s, “Walden”. This is all a senseless ploy, and only exists to keep her busy long enough for him to get Kris to transfer funds and basically sell off everything she owns. This money is then given to the Thief, and he leaves her, stuffing her face, never to be seen again. The cycle continues to some extent, but eventually Kris meets a guy named Jeff. I’ll stop there.

“Upstream Color” is something to be seen, and maybe not so much for the fact that I can’t really describe it on paper. It is a rare occurrence that something so marvelous would grace the screen in our current generation of filmmaking. Carruth has used one of the most interesting and effective filmmaking techniques of montage, and has essentially edited together a 90 minute one here. “Upstream Color” is a strange animal which exists in a constant state of flux. As soon as we believe we have become familiar and comfortable, it suddenly warps and twists into something new and mysterious, yet possibly dangerous.

I discovered a few extra tidbits whilst scouring the internet for a solution to the 90-minute puzzle I had just uncovered. First off, there are explanations for “Upstream Color” and Carruth has gladly helped to explain them. Second, lo and behold, Netflix does carry some gems from time to time and I was able to watch “Upstream Color” through it. Quickly, run with haste to watch it before they take it away!

Finally, and this may be a moot point to some, but I read that director Shane Carruth claims to be a believer in Jesus Christ. Obviously it is impossible to assume he is legit based off some posts on IMDB, and an article in Christianity Today, but nevertheless. There is something absolutely fascinating in knowing a Christian was mostly responsible for the writing and creation of a creature like “Upstream Color”. Folks, this clearly is not a movie about Christianity per say, but it can indeed link heavily into spirituality and faith. For me, this is a prime example of filmmaking by a believer that doesn’t follow the cheesy and frustrating pattern as films like “Fireproof” or “Courageous” or even the upcoming “God’s Not Dead” (which I can only presume will be a flop at Christian theaters nationwide–oh, wait). “Upstream Color” is also not a massively successful film that follows the footsteps of “Les Miserables”, a motion picture that does present faith as an obvious and major theme.

Carruth has quite the talent, and with something like this under his belt, I feel confident in believing there are only more great achievements in filmmaking in his future. My fellow Christian filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers, this is not only a call to strive for excellence in our field, but it is also encouragement that there are extremely talented believers out there who are already breathing life into stories that didn’t even exist before.

My rant being over, and my viewing of “Upstream Color” finally coming to a close, I can do nothing but recommend this movie. It may be a bit much for some, but for those who are willing to work a little harder than the average moviegoers, this is indeed a treat. And a tasty piggy-stream blue one at that… Maybe that joke will make sense after you’ve seen it… Eh, that joke kind of sucked. Sorry… Not sorry.



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