Upstream Colour is the intriguing and complex new film from actor, writer, director and producer Shane Carruth, whose previous film was the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner Primer (2004). His follow-up opens with a young thief (Thiago Martins) harvesting a blue parasitic drug with incredibly strong side-effects of hypnotic suggestibility, which he uses to his advantage. He enters and manipulates the life of Kris (Amy Seimetz), dopes and dupes her, drains her life savings and leaves her terrified and bewildered. Kris starts a new socially awkward life where she and Jeff (Carruth) are inexplicably and romantically drawn together in a captivating web of mysteries.
It is immediately evident that Upstream Colour has been masterfully and attentively constructed. Carruth’s focus and attention to detail is what stands out most amongst its ambiguous and inventive narrative. Lingering close-ups and repeated actions from multiple angles allow the viewer to further engage with his film, offering an immersive viewing experience while persuading the audience to look out for hints and suggestions as to where the story may go. There is a distinct intimacy to the cinematography and visuals evidenced in the abundant use of close-ups of hands. This is beautifully combined with an enchanting soundscape that contributes well to the captivating nature of the film. Carruth has purposefully designed his film in order to provide a subjective and emotional experience for the viewer that is much more thought-provoking than typical Hollywood fare.
While there is a romance that holds the central characters together, viewers should not expect a conventional romantic drama or indeed a straight mystery. Instead, you are asked to surrender to Carruth’s film as it demands far more attention and interpretation. The film may require repeat viewings in order to fully understand its meanings and may still leave you rather perplexed and struggling to understand the puzzle-box that is Upstream Colour. Numerous interviews with Carruth reveal an interest in the ways in which people are unaware of others and the events surrounding them that directly impact upon their own lives. Put simply, it sometimes becomes necessary to journey “upstream” to find the root cause of something. The seemingly bizarre life-cycle involved in the harvesting of the blue-coloured chemical provides a cleverly constructed and non-specific trauma - that can represent any traumatic event - without trying to comment on drug culture and the pharmaceutical industry. Cumulatively this adds to the overall enigma of Upstream Colour, the journey we embark on, the characters we meet and the mysterious path of the virus itself.
Some answers may lie in novelist Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), an introspective meditation on the relationship between the natural world and the self. Carruth has stated that there is clearly common ground between the world of Walden and Upstream Colour. The director had previously read the book in his school days, which would explain the surprising similarities, including the significance of the colours blue and yellow as well as the themes of nature and society. Indeed, the aim of the film is to avoid exposition and be non-specific with the representative and symbolic details on screen. Indeed the recurrent image of a pig may just represent a part of the natural world controlled and affected by the actions of others, similarly experienced by our lead characters. The details of the natural world appear universal and interchangeable, but the message of external forces and issues of control remain throughout.
Compared to Primer, Carruth’s latest film is certainly no more convoluted. Primer focuses on two men who accidently create a method of time-travel. Again, the film demands your attention, but if you are a fan of time-travel tales then it is easier to follow and enjoy. This makes it potentially more mainstream than Upstream Colour, which is certainly bizarre at times. But if Carruth’s aim is to make viewers walk away feeling like Kris – bewildered, confused and needing to revisit what just happened – then his goal has been achieved.