Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a deliberate exercise in swooning obscurity. You either go with its considerable sensory powers or you scratch a groove on your head.
The first option is more highly recommended because, even taken as a solution-resistant puzzle that never quite coheres into a clear picture, Upstream Color has a suggestive power that’s both rare and, if you let it work its juju, irresistible. Think a micro-budgeted The Tree of Life with traces of sinister pharmacological conspiracy, or maybe a body-horror thriller with poetry in its soul. But mostly it’s its own thing, and that thing is a beauty.
It opens with its most narratively straightforward passage, if you can call intimations of a hallucinogenic drug-making operation involving the extraction of liquids from worms and orchids straightforward. The product is used to drug a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is then kidnapped and programmed into signing over all her money, property and earthly material possessions.
But even this relatively genre-bound opening hints at the lush strangeness to come: Carruth’s camera floats and swoons like a hovering butterfly, the editing establishes a sense of primarily sensory logic, and a world emerges where everything, from the worms and orchids to the harvester and victim, exist on an equal plane of importance and interest. And this is the world Amy – and, through her, the viewer – is released into.
Yet it’s this very release – both from captor and material possessions – that frees Amy to ascend to the next level of consciousness and Upstream Color to its true realm of expressive interest: a zone of heightened experience where the world is new, alien and overwhelmingly beautiful, and where the virtually orphaned Amy is reduced to a kind of childlike fear and wonder.
That she’s not alone isn’t exactly comforting to Amy, at least not at first. When first approached by Jeff (Carruth), an unemployed financial-sector employee who not only claims to have had the same experience but some of the same thoughts as Amy, the woman is understandably wary. But a bond forges among these super-sentient, born-again beings that might be love and certainly steels their resolve to get to the bottom of this bottomless mystery. Meanwhile, a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) equipped with audio-recording technology comes increasingly to figure in events.
As I said, hardly the stuff of ordinary movie experience, but only alienating if you insist on the ordinary. As an abstract allegory of discovering the world anew, and of returning from the realm of compartmentalized rationality to a state of childlike sensory wonder, Upstream Color is a head trip for the willing mind. The literal-minded may be left swimming upstream and missing all the colour.