Sunday, July 7, 2013


Though often labeled a "sci-fi thriller," Upstream Color (2013) isn't easy to categorize and is even trickier to describe. A poetic mix of horror, romance, science fiction and art film, it plays like a mashup of Terence Malick and David Lynch, without being as dark as the latter or as deeply internalized as the former. But like those directors' best work, Upstream Color leaves you puzzled and affected in equal measure, its images and ideas supplanting easy answers with an emotional resonance that's hard to shake. Somewhat reminiscent of the personal, elliptical cinema that emerged from France in the 1960s (think Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, Je t'aime je t'aime, or Chris Marker's La Jetee), it represents an anomaly even by today's indie standards.

And it's nothing if not defiantly independent. Written and directed by Shane Carruth, who also stars and provided the haunting cinematography and musical score, Upstream Color asserts its autonomy even further by bypassing the usual distribution channels. Carruth chose to release the film himself, paying for its brief run in theaters and arranging its near-simultaneous release online and on-demand (which is why it so quickly arrived on Netflix).

Not that you would expect the director of 2004's Primer to be less than 100% committed to the DIY ethic. That earlier, Rubik's Cube of a time-travel film was shot for pocket money on 16mm, with Carruth filling the same creative roles with practically no prior filmmaking experience. (An engineer through his 20s, he taught himself how to make movies on the job by sheer force of will.)

Shane Carruth
Primer, more traditional in its storytelling than Upstream Color—if no less deserving of its cult status—announced a unique cinematic voice to the world. Carruth became the indie man in demand. Festivals wanted him. Hollywood came knocking—and briefly got him. But after spending years writing and developing movie and TV projects that never got off the ground (including a $20 million sci-fi film with the support of Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher), Carruth decided he was better off on his own, doing things his way and with his own money.

For Upstream Color he made use of consumer-grade video equipment (the Panasonic GH2) and a visual style that's become remarkably sophisticated since Primer's more amateur aesthetic, fashioning an esoteric and lyrical exploration of nature, identity, and the obliviousness of evil. With echoes of David Cronenberg—if Cronenberg were less wedded to plot and traditional thrills—Carruth fuses key passages of Thoreau's Walden with a mystery involving abduction, hypnosis, and an unusual connection between man and (yes) a certain farm animal. Along with his cinematography, the director's acting has also improved, and he makes a convincing leading man opposite the more experienced, extremely sympathetic Amy Seimetz (so good in Megan Griffith's The Off Hours and currently on AMC's The Killing).

Where Primer relied on a barrage of dialogue and jargon to convey its story points, Upstream Color puts a primacy on visuals, combining gorgeous, shallow-depth-of-field images with evocative music and intriguing soundscapes (legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch would be proud). With this film even more than his last, Carruth has achieved what so many aspiring filmmakers with cheap cameras and no money hope for: a work of art that transcends every technical and budgetary limitation with the two least expensive—and most invaluable—ingredients of all, talent and vision.

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