By Raj Ranade
3:45 PM EDT, April 17, 2013
Directed by Shane Carruth, at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org
Shane Carruth wants to preach the gospel of the spirit pig and the mind-control worm to you, and damned if his new movie Upstream Color doesn't make you believe, for a few hours at least. Carruth is the DIY filmmaking wunderkind who wrote/directed/starred in Primer, the no-budget Sundance hit with a Byzantine time-travel plot that spawned a cult of fevered flow-charters trying to make sense of it. That film was pure left-brain sci-fi, where the pleasure was in parsing the patterns of a mathematically precise movie universe. Upstream Color, which Carruth also marketed and self-distributed in addition to his usual acting/writing/directing/composing duties, is much more of a right-brain beast.
Following in the tradition of sci-fi like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or more recent movies like The Fountain and Cloud Atlas, Upstream uses the genre to create a sometimes transcendent, sometimes goofy allegory for (arguably) nothing less than "life, the universe, and everything", as Douglas Adams might put it. Unlike Adams' work, Carruth's film feels deathly serious about it, which is a double-edged sword. Few things cry out for parody like an exploration of an orchid-grub-worm-pig theory of human existence executed with total solemnity, and yet much of the power of Upstream Color comes from the half-mad sincerity of the ideas radiating off the screen.
There's horror before the metaphysical yearnings come into play, though. In the film's first act, Kris (Amy Seimetz) finds herself under the control of a malicious scientist, who has created some kind of mind-control elixir from harvested worms and orchid dust. After some trial exercises — forcing her to copy out long passages from Henry David Thoreau's Walden, for example — he gets her to empty out her bank account and then vanishes. When Kris finally regains mental control, she awakes to the Cronenberg-style nightmare of foot-long worms wriggling under her skin. It takes the help of a mysterious pig farmer to get them out — he transfuses them out of her body into a pig.
Here's where things get weird(er) — the film shifts gears from relatively straightforward horror territory into something more like abstract metaphor. Two threads intertwine — the first follows a shell-shocked Kris as she falls in love with equally wounded soul Jeff (Carruth), who for some reason has a set of memories uncannily similar to Kris's own. The second involves the pig farmer — all of his pigs seem to have a kind of spiritual half-Being-John-Malkovich mind-window to formerly worm-possessed people, including Kris and Jeff, that he can access. The cycle soon starts to loop around, and it seems that the forces of attraction bringing these lovers together may be part of the grand scheme.
As the film progresses and Jeff and Kris discover their role in this circle of life and/or chain of exploitation, it becomes clear that Carruth is less interested in how much sense the literal details of the plot make (though there's a coherent enough bizarro-world logic to most of what happens) than in metaphorical considerations about what this all means. The continual references to Walden are one clue. One of Carruth's central ideas here is about how poisonous narratives and cycles of existence can be imposed on us by society (and/or evil worm scientists) and how these can only be effectively replaced through reconnection with nature and rediscovery of our natural (pig-like?) selves — sentiments at the heart of the transcendentalist philosophies of Thoreau and Emerson (though Carruth is the kind of inquisitive filmmaker who keeps doubling back and questioning the hypotheses he puts forth — pay attention to how the fate of the "antagonist" ultimately fits into this reading).
Not that those are the only interpretations to be found here (I've heard compelling readings for the movie as a parable of both drug addiction and the economic downturn). Carruth certainly doesn't tell you in the film — his aesthetic is radical in the way he provides almost nothing in the way of exposition and depends on you to intuit the essential facts from seemingly throwaway bits of dialogue or images and edits that seem to rhyme with each other (like the continuing match cuts between geometric patterns of the urban world and similar shapes in nature). There's an appealing free-associative feel to the way that plot fragments and images related to a guiding idea are strung together here — desaturated-color variations on a theme, set to the alternately ominous and beautiful ambient drones of Carruth's soundtrack.
It can also feel like the central love story works better as a cosmic conspiracy component than as an actual emotional underpinning for the film.
But Seimetz is terrific as our central traumatized searcher, managing to hold on to something recognizably human and moving even in this most abstract of universes. And as a cerebral conundrum to be worked over in your head, Color is first-rate stuff — a truly renewable source of late-night dorm-room conversation fuel. I'm assuming there will be some readers who are rolling their eyes at this whole enterprise, and I don't really blame them — I'm not sure that Carruth's truths of existence are profound enough to fully justify the work he requires from viewers to puzzle them out and the air of revelation everything is shrouded in. But it's undeniable that Carruth has built some kind of gorgeous and intricate cathedral to a mystical vision of the world here. It takes a little faith to really get swept up in that vision, but even if you don't ultimately end up subscribing to the church newsletter, it's hard not to admire the handiwork and the raw passion of the architect behind it all.