This week, I’m taking a break from my “Tales of Yore” articles to discuss a new movie, which I haven’t done since I reviewed Hitchcock…in February. I’m also making good on my claim that I’d review some science fiction films. This week, I’m looking at an indie (is it possible to say that word without sounding pretentious?), kinda-experimental film by Shane Carruth, director of the 2004 cult time travel movie Primer. There will be minimal spoilers.
Upstream Color (2013)
Plot: A parasite goes through its life cycle, affecting many people both directly and indirectly along the way. This includes Jeff (Carruth) and Kris (Amy Seimetz), who have been affected by this organism but cannot understand why and how their lives are being impacted.
That plot summary is not as precise or useful as say, one for a Disney movie might be, because the point of this movie isn’t the story: it’s the effect. While you can focus on piecing together the plot, the real reward is from absorbing the movie as a whole piece. While I have a lot of trouble getting into experimental movies, Upstream Color feels cohesive and complete, rather than overly abstract or pretentious.
That comes largely from the fact that the director (/writer/cinematographer/actor/musician/editor/producer) actually managed to make a complex and engaging plot to go along with the ideas and questions embedded in the movie. Experimental films sometimes forget the story, but thanks to Carruth, that is not of concern here. This is less surprising considering his first movie, Primer, a plot-dense time travel brain-scrambler. I am very happy to see him take the steps he did with Upstream Color, because his talents shine through much brighter than they did with his previous effort.
Still, as much as the ideas are probably most important, I’ll give a slightly better idea of what’s going on in the story. As I mentioned, there is a parasite that goes through its lifecycle, which starts in orchids (and maggots in their soil), goes to humans, then to pigs, and back again. The parasite can bind people together mentally, as shown by two kids who consume some of it and then move in tandem. More interesting is the connection between the human and pig when the parasite travels from one to the other. Here are where some more minor SPOILERS will occur, but I don’t think they’ll particularly ruin the movie. Your call.
Kris and Jeff have both had the parasite, and their worms have been put into two pigs that mate. When the pigs have piglets, someone takes the adorable youngins away, which causes extreme anxiety in both Kris and Jeff. Jeff reacts violently, as Carruth intercuts the pig watching his young being taken and Jeff beating someone up. Kris has a panic attack, not certain why she feels as though something is being taken from her. The two lock themselves in their bathroom with a gun and supplies, convinced someone is after them. END PLOT SPOILERS
This scene is largely indicative of what I read as the point of the movie; that is, how much are our lives entirely our own? While Trope-ic Thunder writer Drew Parton
can probably speak (correction: has spoken) to the psychological aspects of this much better than I, the idea that unknown forces impact our behavior, thoughts, and emotions brings up questions like, what part of our personalities and actions are actually us? In many ways, the connections Kris and Jeff have to these animals are externalizations of this question: where does free will begin and nature, exemplified through the parasite, take over?
There are other interesting psychological aspects, such as when Jeff can’t keep separate his personal memories and stories that Kris told him from her childhood. Again, we are left wondering what is actually our identity, and what do we think is our identity? You’ll notice that, in the linked FAQ, this is mostly what Carruth has said to be the theme behind the movie, which is slightly unfortunate because I think that he made this movie well enough to stand without comment. The fact that this movie is so open and abstract, yet has a clear message shine through, speaks to its power.
Still, despite how clearly this theme sticks out, another benefit of this movie is that it can probably be experienced or interpreted in many ways. If the movie clicks for you, you’ll probably take away something personal from it. And even if you don’t like movies that focus on theme, there is still a really cool plot for you to puzzle over (and not to mention some gorgeous imagery). Movies like Upstream Color manage to stay in my mind and bring me back for repeated viewings. While there are a lot of great movies coming out this summer, take the time to check out this unique experience, which is available on video and Netflix. Carruth has made something that blends everything that constitutes a movie, and the result is a treat for the eyes, mind, and part of your brain that loves piglets.
Have questions about Upstream Color? Want to share your point of view? Have a movie you’d like me to watch/write about? Comment below!