Review: Upstream Color


Part of me wants to wait until I fully understand every facet of Upstream Color before I review it, but a larger part of me suspects I never will. Might as well strike while the iron is hot.

Upstream Color is mind-altering, like the hypnotic drug forced on the film`s poor victims. It`s also frustrating, like their perpetual state of confusion and inability to communicate. It lingers in my mind, expanding in space, mystery, and discomfort, as I imagine a painful suppressed childhood memory might. Seeing through Upstream Color‘s haze isn’t as exciting as being in it.

[This review was posted as part of our 2013 Sundance Film Festival coverage as well as our South by Southwest 2013 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Upstream Color with second opinions from other staff members.]

Upstream Color
Director: Shane Carruth
Rating: NR
Country: USA
Release Date: April 5, 2013 (New York), additional cities in weeks to follow (For a full list of cities, dates, and theaters, click here.)

There are only middles in Upstream Color, no beginnings or ends. As viewers of Shane Carruth`s debut Primer may expect, this mesmerizing followup is esoteric and dense. I feel as if Carruth dug a tunnel through my skull, damaging wiring along the way, and then dumped a bucket of water on my central computer — once Carruth`s mucking around is over, the sparking of my system does enough self-inflicting damage. Does that sound good? I can’t think clearly enough to say.

Once decoded, Upstream Color‘s plot is simple and laughably bizarre, full of gaps and unearned explanations. This conclusion didn’t hit me until the day after, however, because decoding Upstream Color is an essential part of the film. Like Primer, major reveals can literally be missed in a blink of an eye. The framing and structure of Upstream Color gives its ridiculous plot credence and weight. In the hands of M. Night Shyamalan, this tale would get as many unintentional chuckles as The Happening.

The music throughout the film is comparable to those new age albums that claim to alter your brain’s beta and delta waves. At the end of the film, I found myself enter a strange dreamlike state where the world felt less real. I can’t say if that’s the power of the film or the music manipulating my brain. Whatever the case, it’s effective.The visuals and editing complement this sleep state with shallow focus and washed-out color, like that first glimpse of a bedroom upon awakening. The editing continues this emulation, sporadically cutting to black, as if awakening and falling back asleep. Upstream Color feels like a UFO abduction or watching The Tree of Life on sleeping pills. Upstream Color is the dream that haunts you throughout the day. Not a spooky haunt; more like deja vu. After watching the film, something changed and it wasn’t my environment. That’s powerful.

I tell you how Upstream Color feels instead of what it is (an uncertainty that won’t be collectively solved by the internet — sorry, Primer fans.) If this all reads like hyperbole, then let me add that the ongoing uncertainty of the film’s plot fights against the tranquility of the filmmaking; and the lack of apparent answers is maddening; and I`m not sure if I enjoyed it. Then again, Upstream Color is a film that hurts my brain to the point where enjoyability is no longer a value it knows. Consider the number below arbitrary and the words above both a warning and an invitation.

Hubert Vigilla: Whenever I see a bit of writing that’s difficult to decipher, I have an immediate desire to want to try to read that text. It sort of makes sense that the first image in Upstream Color involves some mysterious writing that’s been discarded. From the very beginning, I wanted to understand the rhythm, the shape, and the color of the film, and I think a lot of people will be frustrated if they’re looking for a straightforward narrative that tells them what to think and what to feel.

Instead, Shane Carruth’s crafted a moody, manic, gorgeous movie that’s felt before it’s understood, much like a good piece of music. It’s part David Cronenberg, part Terrence Malick, and yet an organism that’s entirely Carruth’s own. This is on a different scale than Primer because Upstream Color wants get at the core of what it means to be human and alive. It does this by taking an odd shape: a mind-bending, emotionally charged sci-fi misfit love story, heavy on the hobby horses of existentialism, transcendentalism, and the desperate concerns of damaged souls — free will, control, love, ennui, loneliness, alienation, community, self.

A lot of people will leave Upstream Color asking, “What did I just watch?” and will just discount it as nonsense. I can’t hold it against them. It’s not a movie for everyone, and nothing should be or can be for everyone. That isn’t to say there’s no sense of universality to Upstream Color. I think it’s rife with universality, but just because a movie expresses something human doesn’t mean it will express those concerns in a way that everyone will enjoy. It may wind up being the most divisive movie since Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

But Upstream Color isn’t nonsense. I won’t say that Upstream Color makes perfect sense to me, but it doesn’t need to since its metaphors and ideas are left a little open like good metaphors should be. I feel such a strange connection to the movie, as if it expresses things going on in my own head in a way I’ve never thought of before. I keep turning the story over in my brain and I keep finding new connections and new possibilities, as if charting the night and finding new constellations. I need to watch Upstream Color again, not because I want to decode every symbol, but because I want to experience the strange joy of the film that’s hard to express in words. 91 — Spectacular

Geoff Henao: Upstream Color was the first film I screened at SXSW this year, and needless to say, it was definitely a very heavy film to launch this year’s SXSW experience with. Like Allistair and Hubert said, the film is very dense and hazy, both metaphorically and literally. There’s a mental haze of confusion over exactly what’s going on, heightened by the cinematography’s penchant for soft saturation. Shane Carruth puts all of himself into his films, and with that comes a natural notion to question everything going on.

And really, Upstream Color will have you asking so many questions, not only about what it is you’ve seen, but whether or not you even liked it. This film will make you think, ponder, wonder, pontificate, and reach for a level of understanding that, maybe, will be unattainable. It’s overwhelming and polarizing, much like Allistair mentioned with his reference to Tree of Life. It’s not as rooted in science-fiction logic like Carruth’s previous film, Primer, but feels like an extension of that film’s universe.

No matter how you feel about Upstream Color after the credits roll, it’ll stick with you for a long, long time. Isn’t that what the best films are supposed to do? 80 — Great

Alec Kubas-Meyer: I can’t put a number on Upstream Color. There is no single word that embodies my reaction to the film, and I don’t even know that my thoughts could be reduced to anything less than a run-on sentence. Were I to make a graph of my investment in the story and the characters, it would look like an incredibly dangerous rollercoaster. Were I to graph my understanding, well, it wouldn’t look like much of anything. Here are some things I know about Upstream Color: it’s better than the disgustingly bad Leviathan (something I spent several minutes contemplating while the occasionally overbearing audio mix was reveling in a bizarre underwater soundscape), Amy Seimetz looks good with short hair (a rarity among women), there are pigs in it (though I don’t really know why, even if I have a vague idea), and Hubert understands it way goddamn better than I do (which I know because we have had several conversations about it).

Everything else is honestly kind of up for grabs. I want to see Upstream Color again in a year, and then a year from then, and so on. It would be interesting to see how my reaction to the film changes as I age, both because I will have a better understanding of the film from previous viewings and because I will have had new experiences that could give me some fresh perspective on whatever it is that’s going on.

I recommend Upstream Color on the basis that I have never seen anything like it and most of the people I’ve met who have seen it have enjoyed it, but even days after the credits have rolled and I’ve had plenty of time to talk and think about it (I even know how director Shane Carruth wants the film to be interpreted), I’m just so lost. Words truly can’t describe Upstream Color… or at the very least, my words can’t.