In a story told more through image and feeling than through dialog and action, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color explores human identity and authenticity, deception and complicity, loss and restoration. The film’s oblique manner may put some viewers off, yet it is an important part of Color achieving its work (which it does quite well): connecting us emotionally to a stream of causes that infect the protagonists’ lives and have them longing for redemption — though they don’t really know what from.
There’s something in the soil, in the water, carefully selected, toxic, addicting, dangerous, samples of nature manipulated by an undercurrent of questionable character. Hidden, seeping into groundwater, forced upon us, a pervasive unknown danger, a rare and tantalizing blossom. Kris becomes a target, hypnotized into repetitive and meaningless activity, entranced into stealing her own identity. Jeff is drawn to her, himself a victim of the same infection. They embrace and they stumble, they move closer and they push away, struggling to connect. Sensing the unknown infection yet unaware of its source, they fight as much against each other as against the ambiguity and confusion. Running time: 96 min.
Watching Upstream Color is best done in a manner like one might listen to jazz music: feel the flow and rhythm, engage with the melody, let emotional overtones lend weight to your soul. It is a question-rich film, and the questions are as much about what the pieces are and how they fit to each other as they are about what their greater significance may be. What violations of our beings do we unwittingly endure? Do we ourselves participate in, perhaps encourage, violations of our souls? Do we cede self-control — even unknowingly — feeding further violation? How is the cycle to be broken? Upstream Color does not placidly yield answers — one sees quickly that the film wants concentrated engagement — as it injects questions like these into each moment of its dreamlike landscape.
Most notable in Color’s filmcraft is the strength with which the film dials up the ratio of emotive-to-narrative content. There is definitely a narrative arc, and that arc runs largely in linear fashion (though, importantly, with significant digressions, compressions, and forward references), yet each sequence is constructed to relate more fully the emotions of the story than its plot points. This is good. Very good, actually, especially from the point of view that film best moves us when it strongly moves our emotions. By engendering in us, as it leaves dots unconnected, the same confusion and unknowingness that Kris and Jeff experience, Carruth brings engaged viewers more deeply into their experience. This, in turn, takes us more deeply into Upstream Color's questions.
The film is very much worth the time, and enough has been said thus far for viewers to opt in or out based on what Upstream Color will require of them. It's all good — so long as you're expecting it.
Certain images in Upstream Color may be a bit disturbing, particularly one surgery-like sequence. The protagonists are often under stress or duress. Teen boys misbehave. Much of what for some may be disturbing is implied (such as an attack on a woman), off-screen (a shooting), or arises from fear of confusion and the unknown.
- Director: Shane Carruth
- Screenplay: Shane Carruth
- Leads: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
- Cinematography: Shane Carruth
- Music: Shane Carruth
- Info on IMDb
- Reviews on Rottentomatoes (88%)
- Reviews on Metacritic (80 of 100)
- Review by Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan)
- Review by Slant Magazine (3.5 of 4)
- Review on Paste Magazine (8.4 of 10)
- Review on Film School Rejects (grade: A)
- Read only after viewing: Interview with director Shane Carruth
- Review on Christianity Today Movies (3 of 4) — but it doesn't quite know what to do with the film
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