The Edict of Worms
Am I the last movie geek to hop aboard the Shane Carruth bandwagon? Possibly. Until a few days ago, I hadn't seen Primer, a film my film-loving friends have begged me to watch for years. It's a good thing I waited, because in doing my homework for the writer/director's new picture, Upstream Color, I discovered that the best way to experience his movies is back-to-back.'
Primer was a low-budget indie whose ideas, dialogue, and editing went a long way in masking its meager production values. Watching Upstream Color, it appears Carruth spent the nine years between projects raising money, studying Terrence Malick, and communing with whatever hundredth-level consciousness controls our vast, wacky universe. His second film is far more professional-looking and coherent, and also emotionally engaging in a way that his first was not. Primer was all about tickling the brain; Upstream Color stops the heart and massages it tenderly back to life.
Not that I'd call this a "feel-good" film. It may end on a hopeful note, but you'll have to wade past rape metaphors, New Age drug addictions, a brittle co-dependent relationship, and the world's most sadistic pig farmer before the warm fuzzies kick in. And, true to Carruth's style, none of the answers come easily.
Despite the weight of its message, Upstream Color is a deceptively breezy messenger, peeling back layer after layer after layer of significance by intersecting three disparate storylines--two of which don't don't feel like stories at all. As with the grisly murders in David Fincher's Se7en, much of Upstream Color's story is filled in between scenes or in events that occurred before the movie even began.
"Four paragraphs in, and no description of this allegedly wonderful plot? Bad form, Simmons. Bad form..."
Yes, I usually pull out the slobbering praise as a closer. In this case, I'm struggling not to turn my review into a spoilerific essay of theories; you need to discover for yourself what makes Upstream Color great. But I also realize we live in an unjust world, one in which my endorsement and an image of two people lying in a bathtub are not motivation enough to push you out the door in search of an art house theatre. So I'll be brief.
A movie-effects supervisor named Kris (Amy Seimetz) falls victim to a savage and unnamed new drug. The effects are as weird as the delivery system: after ingesting a maggot (the raw form of the narcotic, which is typically nested inside a capsule), Kris experiences a complete loss of free will and, later, the curse of sharing past experiences with other users as if they are her own. In short order, her life is ruined and she takes a print-shop job to get by.
Sometime in the future, she meets Jeff (Carruth), also a damaged survivor of the bug drug. They get together, mostly because only the select few who've been through their particular horrors can understand them. The greatest tension in Kris and Jeff's nasty, sad reality is that the effects never truly wear off: they subside and mutate into other unpleasant sensations that suggest a cellular-level thirst in need of spiritual-level quenching.
Like Primer, Upstream Color doesn't bother with hand-holding while skipping around time and space. The narrative often appears to stop and smell the roses, but as Carruth's camera lingers on, say, a professional audio sampler scraping large rocks along a drainage pipe, or gives us a stunning Nature's-eye-view of the maggot's life cycle, the answers come rich and rapid-fire (assuming you're strapped in and paying attention).
I'll leave it to you to discover how a pig farmer factors into all this. I will say that the eerily wonderful Andrew Sensenig reminded me of Jean Dujardin in The Artist. He has, I think, three lines of dialogue, yet conveys more complexity, intimidation, and odd empathy than you're likely to find in the most dialogue-heavy of Oscar-bait dramas.
He's in good company. Here's a good example of how enamored I am with Seimetz's performance: before today, I had no interest in seeing the upcoming home-invasion horror movie You're Next. But in researching this review, I found out Seimetz is part of the cast--which means there will at least be something to enjoy on August 23rd. The actress creates a fully realized character of privilege who, through no fault of her own, is brought down to a near emotional and physical flatline. Upstream Color is Kris's years-long struggle back to square one, and she had my sympathy from beginning to end.
Carruth fares well as Jeff, but his character is mostly there to support Kris on her journey. He has a great look and tremendous presence as a mysterious background player, but as Jeff's role comes to the narrative forefront, Carruth's relative weakness as an actor (compared to his considerable gifts as a writer, director, co-editor, and composer) comes out. His performance is good, but it can only squint at the stratospheric greatness of Seimetz and Sensenig's.
The journey from Primer to Upstream Color reminded me of Darren Aronofsky's early career. The much-acclaimed Pi, which I didn't appreciate at the time, and which I should probably watch again, was a micro-budget calling card of crazy imagery and crazier ideas. He followed up with Requiem for a Dream, which proved he could handle stars and a bigger budget without losing his unique voice as a storyteller. Carruth is on a similar trajectory, and I wouldn't be surprised if he comes roaring back in another ten years with the film to end all cinema.
Sure, that's hyperbole. But I'm a staunch believer in this auteur's passion and imagination. Filmmakers rarely give us rich, heady novels anymore, and it's refreshing to have great themes to chew on, married to images both melodic and horrifying in their poetry.
Attention Chicagoans! Remember my opening line about seeing Upstream Color and Primer back-to-back (scroll up if you don't)? Well, here's your chance! On Friday, April 12th, The Music Box Theatre celebrates Upstream Color's Windy City premiere with a trippy double feature. If that's not reason enough to come out, the event will feature a special live introduction and Q&A with Shane Carruth, hosted by The Onion AV Club's Scott Tobias! Click here for details and ticket info!