I wasn’t the perfect audience for Shane Carruth’s debut Primer, a time travel art film which struck me as a clever and intriguing but muddled experiment. His follow-up directorial effort, Upstream Color (2013), comes nine years later, and it left me wondering if he spent every waking moment of the intervening years working on it, because he got it oh, so right.
Stylistically similar to Primer, Upstream Color is difficult to summarize, a mosaic with a fractured, emotional narrative. It stars the luminous Amy Seimetz as Kris, a young woman who experiences the ultimate identity theft. Infected with a mind-controlling worm that puts her into a hypnotic fugue state, she loses weeks of her life to a ruthless criminal who uses her altered state to rob her blind. Afterwards she awakens, shattered and violated, into a nightmare, her life irrevocably changed by the experience. Trying to put herself back together, she meets another victim of the same scheme, Jeff (Carruth). Not without effort, she and Jeff gradually, painstakingly connect. Together, they work to recover from their traumatic pasts — and solve the mystery of what happened to them.
Characterized by disorienting New Wave cuts and unsettling sound design, Upstream Color is a mesmerizing journey full of gorgeous, haunting, and at times unnerving imagery. It’s both formally and thematically challenging, blending science fiction tropes with an evocative, somewhat submerged plot, all in service to an extended metaphor about coping with the after-effects of traumatic life experience. If it sounds a bit abstract, well, it is; it’s narrative by implication and inference, designed to reflect the disjointed, unsettling experiences of its protagonist. But the mood and context is conveyed so effectively that while it’s perplexing at times, it still coheres.
And man, is it ever spellbinding. It channels emotion right into you. While some of it is quite difficult to watch — hard-hitting, dark, heartbreaking stuff — there’s also a hopeful and devastating beauty to it that resonates long after the film ends. Brilliant filmmaking.