Film Review – Upstream Color
There’s a cadence to writer/director/actor Shane Carruth’s latest film Upstream Color that feels like poetry. Imagery, sound, and character combine in such a way that it overwhelmed me with its aesthetic of impressionism to the point of something that could almost be considered religious, depending on your definition of the word. This is beyond a good thing. What exists between the opening and closing shots is filmmaking at its purest. Here is the kind of mixture of craftsmanship and artistry that for me transcends the singular definition of either. What I walked away with is an experience.
It’s been about nine years since Carruth delivered his first feature, Primer—in my opinion, the best time-travel film ever made. Not only does Primer follow more closely Einstein’s theory of relativity than probably any other time-travel film, its approach is both minimalistic and complex, showing us what we need to know, and telling us practically nothing. Here Carruth again applies this technique of impressionistic filmmaking that gives the viewer passing moments that show us not just the story, but emotions, personalities, and ideas. While at first this may seem like a cluttered puzzle, by the end everything you could possibly need to piece the puzzle together has been given to you, but never at any point is it told. Primer worked in a unique way in that never at any moment in the film does anyone say the words “time-travel” or “time machine.” The characters speak of it so matter-of-factly without ever naming it that you know before it’s even revealed what they’re speaking of. There is a lot of that similar style here.
The story is crafted in such a way that telling you the plot is a spoiler in itself. Not only is this a romance between two people, it’s truly a mystery. Imagine looking through a microscope at an amoeba, a single-celled organism that’s at the base of organic life, then you zoom back a little to reveal the amoeba is not alone, it’s part of a group. You zoom back a little bit further and that group appears to form an object, and when you zoom back farther there’s another object next to that one, and so on, until you’ve pulled back so far you’re looking at a whole other organism, one far more complex than the amoeba you started out looking at. This film is exactly like that. We start off looking at one thing, then it pulls back to reveal something alongside, and only when we’ve pulled all the way back can we fully grasp what we were looking at all along.
There are two central figures here, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth). Kris is really the through-line, though; the movie begins with her and stays with her as an event transpires that puts her in a unique position to immediately have a connection with a passing stranger on a train, Jeff. It’s an empathetic connection that they both feel, intensely, and without knowledge why. Inexplicably, they need each other. It’s through this need that they begin a journey together of self-discovery that becomes a mystery to be solved. What develops along the way is a mixture of science-fiction and mysticism that combines with nature, and in such a way transcends being pigeon-holed into any one thing. Ideas come flooding out as fast as the imagery can deliver them to you.
The magic and enlightenment that the film achieves comes from the mastery of control in the delivery of, well, everything. The cinematography, the music, the acting, and, almost more importantly, the editing, are dancing together in unison to create a ballet of storytelling that completely energized my love of film. I’ve been on a high ever since that’s been hidden away until now. It’s dazzling the way scenes are constructed, and play out in unison to each other—the way the music, with its atmospheric soundscapes, informed me not what to feel but what the characters were feeling; the way I as an audience member knew truths before the characters did; how it became a character study in humanity to watch them struggle to determine what was already given to me. Then there’s the subject matter of relationships, exploring the hows and whys of what it means to feel a need for another person, and the way it’s done through blind prying. Or, how there’s a circle that exists here that feels perfect once its revealed, the way sculptors talk about chipping away the excess to reveal what was already there, hidden in the rock.
I feel partially at a loss not explaining the exactitude of why there’s everything here to love and nothing to be left desired. For me, this film is complete. I knew what I needed to know, I felt what I didn’t imagine I’d feel, and I had no questions left to ask of it. When I saw the press screening, Shane Carruth was in attendance and participated in a Q&A afterwards. I sat there debating if I should leave. I didn’t want to discuss the feeling I had just yet; I didn’t want to hear what others felt, and for some strange reason, I didn’t necessarily want, or need, to hear what Carruth had to say about it. I did stay, and of course I learned things about the movie I otherwise wouldn’t have known, but I still didn’t need any of that to write this, and to me that’s what art is all about.
Final Grade: A+