Movie Review : Upstream Color (2013)
* big thank you to David James Keaton for the DVD copy of this movie *
Upstream Color is an 2013 experimental movie written and directed by Shane Carruth. It was his second movie in a decade after the equally experimental Primer, another overachiever on a shoestring budget. It’s weird and unconventional, but nowhere near as weird and unconventional as it seems. It’s deep, but it’s not that deep. Upstream Color is the movie equivalent of that friend in artsy college friend who liked Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, but balked at paying for their movies in theater: “I don’t know, man. I’d rather get my money’s worth. Why don’t we watch Guy Ritchie’s new flick instead?”
It begins with a guy (Thiago Martins) who raises larvae that hijacks your identity. I know it seems wild as fuck, but it works a little bit like scopolamine does and scopolamine is all too real. He singles out Kris (Amy Seimetz) at a club and uses it to rob her of everything she has. But it’s only the beginning of a weird spiral for her. An electronic music enthusiast/pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) then uses the worm to attract her and transfer the parasite to one of his pigs. Then, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) like a year later, who’s sporting the same worm-extraction scars as her, and they fall in love. That would be pretty much it if they weren’t symbiotically linked to their worm-carrying pigs.
I believe a conventional review of Upstream Color would be missing the point, so I’m just going to offer you observations in bulk and you do that you want with it, all right?
I think that Upstream Color is weird, but it’s not necessarily deep. It’s an allegory about losing control of your life. That’s it. Whether you read abusive relationships, substance abuse or social anxiety into it is up to you.
The more interesting point it made, I believe it made unwittingly: individual existence is part of greater cycle. Amy and Jeff are victims of a racket that sprawls from petty thief to avant-garde music recording. They are caught in something greater than themselves that dictated who they become. It’s a determinist movie in its own way.
Can I stress again that harvesting worms in order to sample sounds from people’s lives is fucking weird? I mean, it’s weird for the sake of being weird, right? My greatest disappointment about Upstream Color is that you never get to hear the music the pig farmer recorded.
I would’ve loved if there would’ve been an ulterior motive to the sound harvesting dude. But there isn’t. The guy is a pig raising weirdo with a keyboard, but it seems like he’s only a psycho-sexual scammer. The allegory of Upstream Color is kind of cute until we get to him. There’s clearly more than financial opportunism to this guy, but we never get to see it.
It is the most complicated get rich quick scheme I’ve ever seen in a movie. Keaton was right about that. It requires more than greed to operate that. It requires true passion for larvae and pigs. And keyboards.
There’s no cynical parallel between humans and pigs in Upstream Color. Apparently, pigs were chosen because they’re easy to deal with and have a lot of behavioral similarities with human beings. The connection between both is probably the most touching thing about this movie, although I couldn’t explain why.
Is Upstream Color good? It’s bold and interesting, but I wouldn’t call it conventionally good. Writer and director Shane Carruth has a weird and idiosyncratic way of building allegories and expressing wordless, abstract ideas, but it felt like he wrote himself in a corner in this movie. The idea of character suffering from factors that they aren’t even aware of is pretty great on paper, but these factors were ridiculously intricate and hermetic. Carruth would’ve gained at keeping them a little more mysterious. Especially that pig farming weirdo. Either you go all the way or you keep him shrouded in darkness, you know? Upstream Color is not stupid or unpleasant, but it’s not what it claims to be.