UPSTREAM COLOR: How Are You Supposed to Help Someone Like That?

Upstream Color

Upstream Color (2013) – Directed by Shane Carruth – Starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, and Thiago Martins.

UPSTREAM COLOR is one of the best movie-watching experiences I’ve had in the past year.

It’s not a fun movie. It’s not a movie that wants you to like it. It’s not a movie that’s desperate to please or suitable for viewing while you munch popcorn. I don’t even think it’s a movie you want to watch in the presence of other people, and I was glad that Darwin chose to spend the bulk of this movie sleeping on the bed in the other room.

It is a movie that can be labeled everything from “indie” to “alt” to “experimental” to “art house.” (I’d prefer just labeling it “good,” or “a silent film with words.”) It’s narrative structure is delivered in bite-sized chunks that are non-linear in the micro and linear in the macro.

UPSTREAM COLOR is exhilarating and gut wrenching and hard to watch and beautiful to experience. It contains a simple plot and a complex story. It uses a unique premise to engage universal themes, and it does it all with such a confident hand and purposeful vision that I was mesmerized.

Spelling out the plot in a few straightforward sentences feels almost blasphemous; Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drugged, ingests a roundworm, and is put under the thrall of a thief (Thiago Martins) who uses hypnotic suggestion to steal from her. When he has taken everything she has, he abandons her to wake up in a world where the life she knew is gone. She’s fired from work, has no money, doesn’t think she can call the cops because she has no idea (or proof) of what’s happened to her, and discovers the roundworm wriggling around under her skin. After failing to cut it out, she’s drawn to a farm where “The Sampler,” a man who makes audio recordings from nature and our manipulation of it has lured her through the use of infrasonics and takes the worm out of her and puts it into a pig, which then goes to live with his other pigs in a large, penned-in enclosure. Sometime later, Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) on a train, and seems to be both uninterested in his company and drawn to him. They fall into a relationship even as their worlds continue to unravel. Jeff has also been a victim of the Thief and Sampler, and their lives are attached metaphysically to the pigs that still contain “their” roundworms. Those pigs have babies, which the Sampler collects and drowns in a river. In time, the dead pigs rot and a blue gas seeps out of them and into the river, contaminating white flowers and turning them blue, which are then harvested by unknowing florists and sold in their shop, which is frequented by the Thief, who buys the flowers and harvests the new worms and begins again with his scheme. Kris and Jeff piece together what’s been happening, kill the Sampler, inform other victims, and bond with the pigs at the farm.

This is a tough review (or reaction, as I like to call what I do) for me to write because I don’t want to talk to you about UPSTREAM COLOR as much as I want to talk with you about the film. COLOR is a film that I want to watch alone and then discuss in multitudes because it’s such a unique movie that I fear talking about might rob you of the experience at seeing in with unbiased eyes. While I don’t generally like to recommend you go see a movie or stay away from it (I just see my duty here to explain to you why I like or dislike a film), I would urge you to go watch UPSTREAM COLOR if it sounds, in any way, appealing, and then hit me up to talk about it.

I think a conversation that jumps around is perhaps the best way to discuss a movie that jumps around, too.

Many critics have noted the cinematic debt UPSTREAM COLOR owes to Terrence Malick, and certainly UPSTREAM COLOR is to pod people films what The Thin Red Line is to war movies. Some people will undoubtedly be driven nuts by this approach to filmmaking. That’s cool. I’m not, when what we get is this rich and involved.

Take the early scenes of Kris’ abduction and hypnotic abuse. The thief’s actions are calm and devoid of fireworks, and he appears almost bored. He prevents (through suggestion) Kris from eating, building her life around the deliciousness of a water, which he uses as the carrot to bring her further under his control. He gives her menial tasks, like transcribing Walden and then turning those sheets of paper into a paper chain. Eventually, this allows him to suggest to her that she should turn over her money and rare coin collection to him. When he’s gotten all he can, he abandons her in a car on the highway, allowing her to awaken and eat again.

Carruth doesn’t rely on flashy performances or forced emotion to deliver his story. The more dispassionate the thief seems and the more ordinary the tasks Kris performs underscore the seriousness of what’s occurring. The thief’s manipulation of Kris’ mind is stunning in its simplicity and ease and ordinariness. When I was an undergrad at Syracuse, I watched a hypnotist come in and do his thing in one of the dorms. (Lawrison, I think. I lived in Marion, on the other side of campus.) He put the whole crowd under (except for me and one or two others who weren’t susceptible to his schtick) and then the crowd was awakened, we watched one student think he saw a cat that wasn’t there and chase after it.

Funny, right?

Except the student “saw” the cat walk onto a ledge and he went after it. (We were inside, but there was a wide staircase heading to the floor below in the corner, and the student walked around the ledge between empty floor and window.) You could see a momentary look of panic hit the hypnotist’s face (I was more interested in watching him than the cat-chasing student) as he realized maybe this student was going to hurt himself. There was lots of adrenaline surging through the room as the student picked up the non-existent cat and walked back to safety.

There is very little adrenaline in the opening act to COLOR, as Carruth skips past lots of the dramatic moments to focus on the mundane. When Kris is busy in banks signing away her savings, we remain closer to the thief, hunched over in the backseat of her car, and then Carruth has skipped to the next moment.

Carruth uses some adrenaline to punctuate the shift in acts, as we get a few brief scenes of Kris getting fired as she weakly insists she was sick, and protesting with the bank that it’s not her signature on the signed documents that withdrew all of her money. When she’s confronted with the security camera footage, she is confronted by the strangeness of what’s happened.

Carruth doesn’t let his film dwell on these moments, however, as we’re quickly past the realization and on to her future self, working at a printing shop and taking the bus to work. I like how the film skips over moments an audience expects to see; there’s a confidence in COLOR’s faith in the audience that’s reassuring. Carruth tells us everything we need to know, but he will sometimes make us wait for it, and when he does tell us, he’s telling us in pictures and not words, as when we see the piglets drowned, rotted, and bursting with blue gas that turns white orchids blue. There is no scene where a dedicated cop who’s fallen in love with Kris speaks this out for the audience; the answer is there if you want to see it, but it’s on you to piece together the visuals.

Amy Seimetz delivers a mesmerizing performance as a woman who’s life has been stolen from her and then given back so she can pick up the pieces. I wish I had the vocabulary of an actor to be able to break down all the techniques she uses to bring Kris to life and make us feel for the character, but I don’t. All I can say is that it’s the quietest, greatest leading performance I can remember seeing. There’s so little dialogue in UPSTREAM COLOR that what is said is merely another instrument in an orchestra, taking the lead for a movement before disappearing back into the gestalt, yet Seimetz manages to create a compelling multi-layered character that has been victimized in the dark – she knows something happened to her and she must live with the consequences of that abuse, but life also forces Kris to march forward. When the pigs containing Kris and Jeff’s pigs are forced apart by the Sampler and the two humans experience fear and confusion and loss without knowing what the cause is, they come together and huddle in a tub, expecting … something to happen. Something terrible. It’s an unidentified fear, expecting a monster to arrive without knowing what form it will take, and so they huddle in the empty tub together, feeling less like lovers and more like mutually damaged companions.

The scenes with the pigs are devastating. There hasn’t been a film that makes me want to stop eating bacon and sausage this much since Babe. (I find pork to be a generally disgusting tasting meat, anyway. When I was a kid, I hated pork chop night at dinner; one night, after my mom told me I had to eat it or I couldn’t leave the table, I threw it up and that was the end of my parents making me eat pork.) And ham isn’t much better, though if it’s cut thin, I like it once or twice a year as a secondary meat on a grinder.)

It’s not just the connection the pigs have with Kris and Jeff, though that’s powerful in the ways it heralds back to Umberto Eco’s treatment of the Powder of Sympathy in The Island of the Day Before. The Powder was a 17th-century European medical “treatment” which hypothesized you could cure a wounded individual by applying the powder to the weapon that caused the injury. In Island, Eco fictionalizes the once-proposed use of dogs to help solve the problem of longitude for 17th-century seafarers. (Check out Dana Sobel’s excellent article on the subject for further illumination.) The idea was that a dog was wounded with a blade and placed aboard a ship, and then everyday at an appointed hour, someone back in England would touch the blade into a solution made from the powder, causing the dog to yelp, and thereby alerting the crew what the time was in England, which helped them determine their longitude.

Details aside, what sticks out is that poor dog down in the bottom of the ship’s hold. The idea that there could be a metaphysical connection between object and animal through the blood is transformed here to the human to pig connection between the worm. The pigs, perhaps because that’s where the worm now resides, seem to project their emotions out towards Kris and Jeff (perhaps explaining their attraction and definitely explaining their panic) at a greater level than they are receptors for what Kris and Jeff experience, but given that the Sampler gives voice to the idea that he’s never seen two pigs behave exactly as these two have (they try to escape together), there is some evidence to suggest that Kris, Jeff, and the pigs are all connected in a circular system beyond broadcaster and receptor.

The ending is both uplifting and devastating. Kris kills the Sampler, moves into the farm, and starts caring for the pigs and their piglets. We learn earlier that she can never have children due to her ordeal, and it’s clear, as she holds a piglet in her arms, that she yearns for the affections of motherhood. With the death of the Sampler, the new piglets will never be drowned and the orchids will never turn blue and the thief will never again have access to the worms that allow him to control people.

When UPSTREAM COLOR had finished, I remained on my couch, in the dark, letting the world slowly come back to me. There were voices outside my apartment, which turned out to be cops. I brushed my teeth. Darwin exchanged the bed for the couch. The parts of my life that cause me stress seeped back into my brain: What will I do for work when my contract runs out? Where will I be living come July 1st?

We often think of popcorn movies as the perfect form of escapist entertainment. Give me two hours of people cracking wise as they try to save the world in a darkened theater and all I have to worry about is did they put enough butter on the ‘corn and not the real world outside. I love those movies, but I also love that a film like UPSTREAM COLOR can also take me away from my own problems and give me something to think about and appreciate and ponder.

UPSTREAM COLOR is a spectacular movie.