Upstream Color

Upstream Color photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgShe shot the wrong guy! – Me

When does a film go from merely boring to cruel and unusual punishment? That question is explored with Shane Carruth’s 2013 work Upstream Color. If you endured his last opus, Primer, you will know that the director enjoys confusing his audience. But where that was mind-bending, Upstream Color is positively mind-numbing.

A woman’s life, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is shattered when she is stun gunned at a club by a man known only as Thief in the credits. He force feeds mysterious worms to her that have mind control properties. During the next several months he tricks her into writing checks to him from her bank accounts. Then he flees with her money. Still tormented by the worms Kris meets the Sampler who de-worms her. There’s an extended montage where we watch the Sampler extracting sounds from nature. He uses this “music” to lure other infected people to his farm. More on the score later. His farm is full of pigs which have some sort of mind meld with humans. Anyways, Kris must now pick up the fragments from her life and begin anew. She gets a new job and meets Jeff – played by the director. Incidentally Carruth cannot act but who’s going to tell him? He‘s also the producer. Kris and Jeff bond over similar backstories, neither of which are very interesting. You see it’s a romance (pause) between 2 very dull people.

There’s something to be said for experimental cinema. If you think the greatest transgression is when a filmmaker doesn’t trust his audience to comprehend what’s going on, you’ll adore this. Upstream Color is a most cryptic story. The problem is that it is an agony to watch. The saga is made even more tortuous by the score, I absolutely hated it. It’s a tedious combination of blaring horns, wind chimes, glass harps and ambient noise. Anyone familiar with “war on terror” tactics will know where I‘m going with this. At first it’s just eerie but over the course of 96 minutes it’s music torture. Interspersed with these sonic blasts are scenes that recount a tale of sorts, often without words. The joy of the picture is the ability to put these puzzle pieces together and understand what the <bleep> is going on. Those who can (which I did) are apparently supposed to sustain a sense of superiority over those who cannot. I did not feel this. What I felt was boredom. The acting is wooden, the conversations are routine, scene compositions are static, cinematography is mundane. If this was a developmental movie from a first year film student, I’d say interesting attempt. Some half formed ideas are addressed but remain unexplored. As a theatrical release, however, it is most unsatisfying experience.

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What my fellow bloggers had to say:
(If you’ve written a review for this film, let me know, and I’ll add you to this list.)

3 Guys 1 Movie
The Cinema Monster
The Code Is Zeek
filmhipster
The Movie Blog

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33 Responses to “Upstream Color”

  1. Nice review Mark. Heard some really positive reviews for this but it does seem the kind of film that will divide people. Intrigued to check it out.

  2. This hasn’t opened here yet, will be keen to take a look. But I like what you say about some films trying to make those who actually understand what is going on feel superior to those who don’t get it. That really puts me off a film when I get that vibe.

    • I think I understood most of it but I just didn’t find it interesting. Confusing the viewer works when you have something exciting to say or show. This did not.

  3. Nice review. I’ve read some pretty split reviews of the film but I’m interested in checking this out. I saw Primer yesterday and enjoyed it.

  4. Ehh, I loved it. I thought it was beautiful, the story is not that confusing (perhaps the role of the Sampler is), and the chemistry between the two leads is on point.

    Well, it’s overwhelmingly positive the reaction to the film — rottentomatoes aggregate is in the 80s….

    • All the stuff regarding the pigs was confusing. How they both were united by the worms was just bizarre. Yeah not a fan. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

      • Didn’t find that confusing…. The dude used the pigs to access the humans — i.e. via their parasites. See, as someone who reads science fiction I found all of this rather straightforward. Using parasites to control someone is rather obvious…. It was gorgeous and had a strange story and was rather allegorical. Not sure I can ask for more…

  5. Mark, while I thought it was great your reaction to the film pretty much mirrors what the misses had to say about the film. She actually got angry at me when I claimed that I loved it when we finished watching the film. 😉

  6. It’s too bad you didn’t like it Mark. I can appreciate how someone wouldn’t though. You’re going to love it or hate it.

    • It’s hard for me to understand how someone “enjoys” this. It disregards the basic tenets of story telling. I’m glad you did though.

      • Yup, it pretty much broke all the rules in terms of storytelling that’s for sure.

      • I disagree — wtf are the basic tenets of storytelling? It has a plot, it has characters, it has emotion, it has human interaction, it has allegory, it has hidden meaning…. sounds like a literary short story to me.

    • If you read enough then you encounter stories like this all the time. Even in 60s science fiction…. So yeah, I don’t buy this in the slightest.

  7. Your review gave me a grave flashback to To the Wonder, where I tried to act interested in what the director was trying to say for an hour, and then started sighing and checking my watch intermittently. Upstream Color looks bizarre. Like bizarre to the point at which David Lynch can’t take it anymore. Glad you were there to take the bullet, and I’m kinda surprised how many loved it to death.

    • Even though I have yet to see To the Wonder, I think that’s an excellent comparison. I do like Malick, Lynch too. Carruth? Not so much.

      • Yeah everything I’ve heard about Carruth makes me wonder if he should be a filmmaker, or some guy who collects Andy Warhol’s pop art and tries to make a story out of it. Primer and Upstream Color both sound like several thousand plot points and strange ideas that don’t tie back together anywhere. At least David Lynch and Terrence Malick make sense.

      • I don’t understand — this film was not that difficult to understand. And LYNCH does NOT make sense. What exactly happens in Mulholland Drive? In Lost Highway? I challenge you!

  8. I can understand your point of view, but personally I was captivated by it and thought it was good.

  9. GaryLee828 Says:

    I heard some good things about “Primer” and so I put it on on netflix one day, and turned it off after like 15 minutes it was so dull and boring; and if that was more exciting than this, then I feel your pain! lol.

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