Last night while thumbing through new additions on Netflix I stumbled across Upstream Color, a film-festival favorite written and directed by Shane Carruth and starring Carruth and Amy Seimetz. I knew nothing about the movie, though I had watched Carruth’s Primer a few years ago.
Upstream Color is much like Primer, in the sense that the film plunges the viewer into a fragmented and disorienting science fiction story with little conventional exposition. I should point out that his choice is not a gimmick, but serves the plot of both films. If you are hoping for a lot of sci-fi action you will find the movie confusing and pretentious — in the US we are used having our food chewed for us (to mix a metaphor) when we go to the movies — but I guess I was in the right mood for this film, because it drew me in.
If you would like a plot summary of Upstream Color, it’s hard to do better than the extended review by Caleb Crain in the New Yorker. But in one sentence, the movie is about two people (played by Carruth and Seimetz) who suffer grave personal violations, become psychically linked as a result of those violations, and spend the movie attempting to heal the hidden wounds caused by their trauma.
The movie is incredibly atmospheric and threaded with intense feelings of loss, alienation, and fitful attempts to become whole. While the plot “resolves” in the end, the film mainly evokes the emotional scarring borne by Seimetz, Carruth, and other victims. This makes it sound like a tragedy, which it’s not. What I mean is that, as with any traumatic experience, the characters make their peace but remain irrevocably damaged. The brilliance of the movie is in its conveyance of this feeling with very little dialog; the details are almost beside the point.
It’s a day later and I’m still thinking about the film, which is about the highest complement I can offer. So if you’re into artsy-fartsy science fiction, watch the movie. Just go with the flow for the first 30 minutes.