Fascinating, thought-provoking and meticulously crafted, Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” is like a tonic given during a haze of mediocrity. It’s the kind of film that receives most of its attention at the Independent Spirit Awards(Shane’s second Best Director nomination, following 2004’s “Primer”)and on the festival circuit(it premiered at Sundance roughly a year ago), but make no mistake, this one’s a keeper. We shouldn’t fall into the trap this time of season of letting Oscar be our barometer for success, because “Upstream Color” is probably superior to every single Best Picture nominee, sans “Her”. And quite possibly, even that one is debatable. This is a marvelous motion picture that is destined to be ignored by mainstream audiences who typically abhor this kind of challenging feature, and misunderstood and dismissed by the ones that do venture to give it a try. It’s a pity more won’t experience its power. This is great filmmaking.
“Upstream Color” is too rich for the typical plot encapsulation because it defies a traditional narrative line. If ever there was the case of a recent release being the one to simply let “wash over you”, this is it. I’ve read flattering(and some not-so-flattering, as would be expected)comparisons to David Lynch, and especially Terrence Malick when reviewing Shane Carruth’s latest, and both seem particularly apt. And do I smell some more-than-faint homage to David Cronenberg’s 1975 debut “Shivers” at one critical juncture? Yes, I believe I do. There is obviously some sort of plant-harvested hallucinogen at play here involving the charcters portrayed by lead actors Amy Seimetz as Kris and Mr. Carruth himself as Jeff—and the larvae that feeds off of it is administered stealthily into the duo’s bloodstream. The effects turn Kris and Jeff’s worlds upside down, and there are lost jobs and episodes of missing time. Before long there are metaphysical connections, a farm full of experimental piglets and a hypnotic attention to Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”. Yeah, “Upstream Color” may be 2013’s most original creation. And it quite possibly contains the most touching interaction between human and swine that I’ve ever witnessed.
I believe that there is an unfortunate conservative tendency to espouse that works delving into the esoteric and Avant-garde are guilty of being “weird” for the sake of weirdness(oh, the arguments I’ve had concerning Lynch’s masterful “Mulholland Dr.!). Here’s the thing—I don’t find the kind of art Shane Carruth bestows upon us all that weird at all. It’s unconventional, I’ll give you that. But thank the stars for the unconventional, lest we be banished to the dungeon of sameness! How sad and predictable that kind of existence would be. There is a clear narrative line at play here, it’s just a little bit more work to dig the darn thing out. And no, I don’t believe I’ve grasped it all, but that shouldn’t even matter. Art is a living, breathing, changeable thing—and more should enjoy that archeological dig to its core. I believe I am quite clear on certain aspects and slightly fuzzy on others. And it’ll be a joy to try to crack open more of this nut on repeat viewings. But even if I never watch it again, the creation still stands solidly on its own feet(Brian M., I’m talking to you now!). If not for the beguiling mysteries of works such as this, we might forever be cursed to an existence of audience-tested blandness. I enjoyed the adventurousness of Mr. Carruth’s “Primer” almost a full decade ago. However, I was unprepared for the maturity of his sophomore effort, especially after such a long hiatus. “Upstream Color” is among the year’s finest films. Grade: A
next review up: “The Hunt”