Upstream Color (2013)

Directed by Shane Carruth

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Upstream Color must’ve taken a while to edit.  It’s a love story about two people connected not just to each other but as well to pigs that have ingested a parasite which was previously used to control the two people.  And that’s about it in a nutshell.

At first it’s all a bit strange, and the performances are kind of stiff, whether intentionally or not.  A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drugged and fed a parasite at a bar, and from there she is effectively hypnotized and controlled by a man who robs her, by having her transfer her money over to him, and then leaves her a few days later.  She wakes up groggy, with the parasite inching its way through her extremities, glimpsed just under the surface of her skin, and then after failing to dig the thing out herself she goes to a see an unnamed character who runs a pig farm and records field audio, apparently as a hobby.

Who he is or what she knows about him, I’m not sure.  He is seen in other moments of the film, watching over people like a guardian angel, seemingly able to move through walls and to do so invisibly.  He performs an operation to remove the parasite from Kris, but then he places it into a pig with whom she will be psychically connected for the remainder of the film.

It’s after this operation, as she is piecing her life back together, that she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), and as their strange romance is conveyed in fragmented vignettes we see how their own memories are suddenly intertwined, such that they can’t figure out what happened to who and when.  They might as well be manifestations of the same inner being.

This is a strange little movie that sometimes feels like it’s trying to do too much and with a grim, fatal sense of the future as you might find in a student film.  It has conviction, is quite grandiose, and there’s no real room for humor.  It’s a very self-serious film that seems in its own way to be about everything.

But it’s also well-made and quite inviting in an experimental way.  It cuts together various moments amongst disparate characters with sound and image, something that does convey an inter-connectedness but which works so well simply because, I think, it’s so aesthetically pleasing.  There is an art to how it’s cut together, and it’s appealing in the same way certain sounds are appealing, like the sound of a skateboard across pavement.

I still can’t quite get past the self-seriousness and the stiff acting.  It always kept me at a distance, even as I felt smitten with their plight, recognizing in their own sorrow my own perceived melodrama.  Sometimes you can’t help but give into the seriousness of things which, when presented onscreen, feel petty and insignificant.

And I think that’s how this film works best, if you buy into their drama and see it as an extension of your own.  These characters are completely and utterly disconnected from the world.  We never see her interact with anyone beyond the man who controls her and the man, Jeff, who squirms his way into her life (though they have a romance we never see the moment when she warms up to him, instead she avoids him and suddenly she’s okay with him).

For Jeff, he lives in hotels and is able to move freely through them at night like a ghost.  He tells her of past mistakes and about his divorce.  He is a character almost singularly defined by his shortcomings, and later we see him beat up a few office workers, only further inviting us into his tormented, unromantic soul.

They’re not characters I’d care to spend much time with, but sometimes we ourselves aren’t people we want to spend time with.  So Kris and Jeff seem to me just manifestations of despair, something sharp and grim, maybe even depression itself.  Even when things begin to look up for them you can always feel the weight of what might come next, like a guillotine waiting to fall.

So it’s a committed film, I suppose just a fragmented melodrama.  I admire the unabashed sincerity and enjoyed the editing rhythms, but something about the film always kept me at a distance, though maybe again that was all intentional.  We look at them with some degree of sympathy but more often than not they are meant to be observed, as if we have more in common with the unnamed pig farmer than Kris and Jeff.

Up Next: Silent Light (2007), Safety Last! (1923), Generation Wealth (2018)

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