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Review: Psychedelic Storytelling in ‘Upstream Color’

Photo: erbp

Actor-writer-director Shane Carruth’s (Primer) second film, opens on a man tending to his garden, collecting maggots from the soil, and harvesting some sort of drug from the colorful plant.

We see its mind altering effect on the young kids in his neighborhood… which while uncomfortable, does nothing to prepare you for what happens to Kris, a young professional working in film, until this nefarious gardener comes along to absolutely and irrevocably wreck her life.

He tases Kris, then administers to her a capsule with one of the maggots inside, a vehicle for the drug. From there, he follows her home, as the narcotic is like a roofie, with an element of persuasion and hypnosis. The man doesn’t hurt or sexually assault Kris (thankfully; I would have turned it off if so), but he has her sell the equity on her house, takes her coin collection, while inundating her with craft projects involving writing whole passages from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

It’s all trippy and terrifying; we have no true concept of time, something you should get used to while watching this unsettling film, but whenever Kris wakes up, with the maggots still wriggling through her skin, it’s almost even more torturous as when she was on the drug. She doesn’t know what has happened to her… but she knows she has to stop at nothing to get the bugs from under her skin. The scene in which she takes a knife to her body is as skin-crawling as the worms inside her.

From there, Kris stumbles toward a sweater-wearing pig farmer (or “The Sampler”), who successfully removes the maggots and therefore, the drugs, from her system. Don’t ask how Kris got there, or learned of his existence… it may very well be an after-effect of the drugs. But no one can eradicate the pain she feels. The thief has not only stolen her money, her job, her body, but her self-respect and humanity. Kris is now a husk, thankful for a job in “signage” at a glorified Kinko’s, waiting for her existence to end. Kris is played by Amy Seimetz (The Killing) in a remarkably fearless performance of a truly broken woman.

Thankfully, even when she finds a sort of love, in the form of shady businessman Jeff (Shane Carruth), he doesn’t fix her, or cure her. In many ways, he makes things worse, as we travel down a wormhole of what-if’s, a confusing and ever-shifting timeline, alternate realities and Carruth’s psychedelic storytelling involving marriage, cancer, a new home, pigs, and many myriad aborted attempts to start over. Upstream Color certainly isn’t going to appeal to everyone. I’m not even sure what I watched myself, but if you’re willing to go on the ride, the film asks some difficult questions, and presents some beautiful imagery, in spite of the ugliness of the situation.

It’s certainly not an easy film. Henry David Thoreau’s master work Walden is a constant presence in the narrative, a curious but powerful choice by Carruth. Thoreau’s naturalist and minimalist work is seen as a guide to self-reliance, yet neither Kris or Jeff are even close to that. Thoreau reaches a sort of spiritual enlightenment while at Walden Pond, and it appears that Kris and Jeff might have such luck by the end of the film, even if it might be too little, too late, short-lived and some sort of cosmic joke.

In many ways, what the thief has done to these people is as much a social experiment as what Thoreau put himself through. It’s certainly as isolating. There are several scenes in which Kris and Jeff are telling each other stories, and Kris accuses Jeff of taking her stories, and making them his own. The thief certainly stole Kris’ story, or at least derailed it permanently, whereas Carruth put his own spin on Thoreau, and really, manipulating stories is what we’re all doing to each other in some fashion, all looking to make it upstream.

four stars

  • Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth
  • Directed by: Shane Carruth
  • Running Time: 96 minutes
  • Genre: Drama, Science Fiction