Friday, January 10, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Upstream Color (2013)

In 2004, Shane Carruth gave the world Primer, a complex and highly-intelligent film about the strange and terrifying fall-out of repeated, ill-advised time travel.
Carruth’s second film, Upstream Color (2013) cements the artist’s reputation for crafting off-beat, non-linear, not-easily explained (or digested…) cinematic narratives. 
It’s true, some audiences will simply find the director’s sophomore effort a bridge too far: an exercise in self-indulgence lacking any coherent rhyme or reason. 
Others, however, will discover in Upstream Color a film of deep beauty and resonant symbolism, and find themselves immersed in an almost unsurpassed sensory experience. 
All film is experiential to one degree or another, but Upstream Color feels legitimately like a spiritual epiphany more than a “story” or a film with a traditional (and familiar) three-act structure.
This isn’t a film that you can watch, unengaged or unmoved.  It happens to you, and ultimately it overwhelms you.  As a viewer, you can either resist the dazzling onslaught of imagery and sounds, or decide go with the flow and see where you end up.
I recommend the latter approach, especially considering the nature of Carruth’s selected subject matter: transcendence.
But make no mistake, Upstream Color contains very little by way of dialogue or explanation.  The audience is spoon fed absolutely nothing.  Those looking for concrete details and an answer to the question “why” will be sorely disappointed.
Accordingly, any meaningful review of the film must rely upon a careful reading of the imagery and symbols.  These are the guide-posts to understanding and appreciating Upstream Color, and I’ll endeavor to point them out and explain them as plainly as possible, whenever possible.  But my interpretations are merely that: my own interpretations.
To begin, a recap of the film’s story, in general terms. And there’s no need to worry about spoilers.  This isn’t the kind of movie where you’re hanging on every plot-twist, or being set-up for some “surprise” twist ending.

A young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted and held by a mysterious drug dealer and thief (Thiago Martins).  He forces her to swallow a small worm-like parasite, which then takes root in her stomach. 
The presence of the small parasite renders Kris extremely susceptible to suggestion.  The Thief manages to brainwash Kris in this compromised state, into liquidating much of her wealth.  She hands over her collection of coins, and takes out all the equity in her home…and hands it over to him.
Sometime after the thief disappears with her coins and her savings, Kris awakens from a hypnotic trance and attempts to remove the wriggling worm (and offspring…) in her body…with a knife. She fails, with bloody results.
Instead, a man who owns a pig farm and spends his time recording and “sampling” sounds of nature, surgically removes the worms for Kris and inserts them instead inside a small piglet. 
Kris returns to her normal life, baffled by what has occurred, and experiencing terrible gaps in memory.
In time, Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), a man who possesses similar extraction scars on his body, and who also seems to suffer from memory loss.  Before long, Kris and Jeff begin to feel connected in an unusual way, as if their separate memories are merging into one…
Meanwhile, on the pig farm, the Sampler (Andrew Senseng ) takes the piglets that are now home to Kris and Jeff’s worms, and tosses them into a burlap sack. He drowns them in a river, an act which spawns a panic attack and near-madness in their former human hosts.  When the pigs die, a mysterious blue compound of some sort (apparently from the worms…) fills the river water and colors nearby orchids a rich, deep blue color. 
The orchids are then harvested and sold in the Thief’s neighborhood, where he feeds them to worms, and uses the worms to further rob other individuals.
Kris and Jeff go in search of the pig farm, and also embark on a mission to kill the Sampler…

To begin with, Upstream Color features several visual and textual references to another work of art, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). 

When held captive by the thief early in the film, Kris is brainwashed into laboriously copying pages from that text, and then balling up those pages in a long paper chain. 

Later in the film -- long after the brainwashing has worn off -- Kris is able to recite, from memory, long passages from the book.  These passages are seen as being very meaningful to her.

Broadly speaking, Thoreau’s Walden concerns a journey of spiritual discovery, and its author champions, essentially, closeness to nature as the key to transcending the desperation of human life on this mortal coil. 

It is not a stretch to suggest that Upstream Color gives voice to a similar or connected philosophy about nature, and about man himself.

Kris and Jeff undergo an experience that connects them not only deeply to one another, but to the animals on the Sampler’s farm. 

Kris, especially, seems to feel the life-and-death emotions of the pig she shared the parasitic worm with.  When that pig becomes pregnant, for example, Kris believes she is actually pregnant herself.   

But when the pig’s life is threatened, Carruth’s camera -- focused on Kris -- seems to go mad, suggesting that Kris feels she is actually the one in mortal jeopardy.  She feels the sensations and emotions and panic of being drowned.  And then she feels a terrible absence, following the animal’s death.

The question we must ask is: what does this close connection to nature, as suggested by Thoreau and Carruth, achieve in terms of a greater moral good?   

For one thing, it means the over-turning of the established and cruel Order at the pig farm -- an allegory, as in the case of Orwell’s Animal Farm -- for society-at-large. 

The Sampler routinely kills pigs so as to continue the cycle of creating the blue compound, which is then utilized by the Thief to rob and destroy people.  Kris, Jeff and other former victims of the Thief take over the pig farm and reveal compassion and empathy for the animals because they are now intimately linked to their emotional states.

If we could feel first-hand the emotions of pigs dwelling in industrial farms -- being prepared for slaughter --would it be so easy for us to maintain our current farm system? 

A new and profound closeness to nature, to other living beings, precludes, by necessity, the cruelty that we now accept as a matter of everyday life. One way to escape spiritual desperation and loneliness is to reckon with the idea that we are not alone; that we are all in this life together.  When that reckoning takes hold, the de-humanizing constructs of our current system will start to disintegrate. 

This idea is deliberately mirrored in the film by the destruction of the “life cycle” which gave rise to the Thief’s anti-social behavior.  Without the dead pigs, the blue compound can’t float upstream to color the orchids.  Without the harvested, colored orchids, the worms can’t feed on the drug.  Without the drug-fed worms, humans can’t be hypnotized into acting against their self-interest.   

I would argue that Upstream Color apes Walden not merely in terms of its theme (closeness to nature as a transcendental, life-altering experience) but in terms of its structure or artistic aesthetic.  

Walden is rife with metaphor, allegory, allusion, and metonym, and Upstream Color mirrors that approach, eschewing any “literal” meaning for symbols and representations that must be rigorously interpreted. 

Basically, Upstream Color can only be understood so far as one attempts to read its imagery or terminology in non-literal terms.  Likewise, Walden is best comprehended as a social critique which uses non-literal language to express transcendental ideas.

The big question for me, as a viewer, watching Upstream Color involves The Sampler. Who or what is he? 
My answer is that The Sampler is God.

The Sampler spends much of the film’s running time obsessively recording the sounds of nature, and re-purposing those sounds into new patterns, new compositions.  This is a metaphor, I believe, for God’s oversight of the planet Earth. 

There are moments in the film where the Sampler stands within feet of other people, but is neither noticed by them, nor commented upon. How did he get inside their houses? Why don’t they see him? What is he doing there?  What “sounds” does he record in the presence of these human traumas?

These questions aren’t answered, and so again, I feel that the Sampler represents the idea of a God who observes all of us, moves in mysterious ways, and sometimes allows -- or even makes - terrible things happen (like the slaughter of the pigs). I wouldn’t say that the Sampler is evil (any more than God is Evil), but that he views life in a non-human way.  He allows evil to happen.

In Upstream Color, the Sampler is killed.  Kris kills him, specifically.  I believe this defining act of “killing God” is about mankind’s spiritual need, at this juncture in the 21st century, to re-connect to nature on his own humane terms, and not the traditional societal terms which have given rise to an avaricious or corrupt system.

Can we have both God and “self-reliance” (another key aspect of Walden’s social critique)?  If are willing to believe in a God who allows evil to happen, does that make it easier for us to excuse the evil we see in the treatment of animals, and nature?  Does our concept of an all-powerful God inhibit us from making the changes in us that we need to make for ourselves?

As Shane Carruth has reported, Upstream Color very much concerns the idea of breaking cycles.  By killing the Sampler -- by killing God -- Kris breaks the cycle that allows the Thief to continue stealing from his fellow man (a metaphor for modern capitalism), and allows for all the victims of the Sampler -- man and animal alike -- to become more connected. 

Like Thoreau’s Walden, Upstream Color is about checking out of man’s “civilized” world (the world here of home equity loans, brokerage houses, and Federal Savings Banks) for more humble, natural connections.  

At one point in the film, Kris sleepwalks through her home and finds it filled with other sleepwalkers, or “zombie”- like beings.  Their presence is never explained, but it could be interpreted as an extension of this theme.  These people are sleepers in the modern, technological 21st century; ones that have not yet awakened to the spiritual journey Kris will undertake.  They sleepwalk through their lives, perpetuating a cycle they did not create.

I gather there will be some readers who don’t appreciate this interpretation, as I have laid it out, and that’s okay.  It’s just one man’s interpretation, and I would love to read other perspectives regarding the film, and what you think Upstream Color “really” means.

I suppose what I find most remarkable about Upstream Color as a work of art is the fact that is extremely moving, despite the undeniable oddness.  Like Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), the film provokes questions about who we are, and why we live the way we do, today.  Upstream Color feels dream-like, and yet, like a wake-up call at the same time.  A nifty trick, and thus Upstream Color displays a director at the top of his game, exhibiting a mastery of film language.

I cherish movies that take me to new places, or that help me see the world in a different way, and that’s what Upstream Color, in my personal experience, accomplishes.

My bottom line for something experimental and off-beat like Upstream Color is this:  We already have a lot of movies -- too many -- that adhere to familiar and tiresome standards of narrative convention.  So it’s wonderful to spend 96-minutes in the head-space of an utterly individual artist, who doesn’t kowtow to conventional structure or ape “the six things you need to know to write a successful screenplay!”

As opaque and complex as Upstream Color remains, it’s a great gift to movie lovers because it moves and flows in ways that feel simultaneously true and revelatory.  It’s easy to be cynical about this matter and claim the movie is “self-indulgent” or “artsy-fartsy.” 

But the real self-indulgence is to go marching lock-step along -- in carefully regulated patterns -- never experiencing anything new or daring; never taking journeys of spiritual discovery like the ones Shane Carruth or Henry David Thoreau have offered us.

So my advice?  Swim against the tide. Watch Upstream Color. Twice if you can.


  1. Wow this sounds like a fascinating and intriguing film. The way you describe it reminds me a bit of David Lynch - and I love his stuff. I'll be certain to check this one out.

    I've got "Primer" in my Netflix cue, I need to check that one out too.

    Thanks for reviewing this!

  2. My interpretation...Man will never be at one with Nature until he gives up bacon.

    One of the more difficult things about believing in God is wrestling with the definition of what God considers "evil". The stretch is often made that He considers it in the same context as Man. It's not difficult to see that God's definition of evil, specifically in the Old Testament, is Man continually failing to believe in Him. And since God is all-powerful, we lose that argument (says this stated believer, your mileage may vary).

    Often people will ask "Why did God allow that child to die?" or "Why did God send a Tsunami?" which insinuates that God caused these things to occur. Of course, we interpret a warm and fuzzy God by default. Mysterious ways indeed, but "evil"? I have no more answers as a Christian than any athiest would.

    But those who do not believe in God will yearn or wax-poetic about getting in touch with "Nature". Why are so many willing to blame God for disasters or evil yet dismissive of Nature when God doesn't exist. Who owns evil (disasters, disease, cruelty) then?

    If there is no God, then Nature is the cause of the evil in the world and she's a bitch. We blame God as the cause of evil yet give a pass to Nature. If there is no God then Nature must be to blame.

    After all, these evil events must then be naturally occurring. If this logic is followed then shouldn't non-believers spurn Nature instead of romanticizing "her"? Shouldn't we use all of our Man-made capabilities to continue to advance the fight against the destructive forces of Nature instead of desiring to be "at one" with her? Capitalism is a handy tool for that.

    Equating the consumption of Earth's resources, including eating animals as evil, is a major stretch. There are many animals, insects, etc. that will destroy if not controlled. Are they evil as well or is that their natural behavior? If it is, then why aren't humans granted the same acquittal? Because we have big brains, opposable thumbs and a guilt complex, I suppose.

    If "Upstream Color" insinuates that killing God disables the Thief (Capitalism) which makes Man more like animals, how can Carruth present that and keep a straight face? Seems his personal well-being is based on people consuming his product. Perhaps he would be better served giving it all away and living with animals in nature, away from Man's evil, greedy ways. Something tells me that won't happen. "Do as I say not as I do" is the vibe I'm getting. Many say that religious people are judgmental. I say it cuts both ways.

  3. Great analysis. I know you're commenting on The Sampler in a metaphorical sense, and I know you probably already realize what I'm about to say, but I still feel I must point out that the reason it is never explained why people don't notice him standing next to them or that he is in their homes is because, on a basic plot level, he's not actually there. He is able to peer into these people's lives through his proximity to the worms in the pigs. But when we see him in random people's homes, he's not really there, he's still on the farm close to the pigs.

  4. Hey, really liking your reviews and analysis. I loved Upstream Color, but I don't know if I have a complete reading of it yet. Your interpretation is pretty convincing, however I had been reading it as an exploration of trauma. Both main characters go through a similar traumatic experience, but by coming together they overcome it and move on.


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