THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Upstream Color is, to borrow a line from Oliver Stone's JFK, a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. The film is a reminder that cinema can still challenge you, rather than just placate you. Anyone who demands strict narrative flow and easy answers may as well forget it. But if you admire movies like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, you'll almost certainly find value in this one, as well. I like those pictures a little bit more, simply because each of them hit me at a more emotional level. Nonetheless, Upstream Color deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.
What is Upstream Color? Is it a science fiction movie? A thriller? A romance? A mediation on life? It is all of these things. Amy Seimetz plays Kris, a young woman who, when we meet her, appears to be the victim of some sort of mind control experiment. The early scenes show her being subjected to this strange hypnosis and subsequently engaging in repetitive rituals. Later, she meets a man on the train. He is Jeff (played by writer/director Shane Carruth). They have an awkward conversation that leads to an equally awkward date. We sense it cannot be a coincidence that they are together. Both Kris and Jeff experience a feeling of being out of sorts. Perhaps it has something to do with The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who spends his days recording ambient noise and conducting experiments on pigs. Maybe it has to do with the worms, or the flowers, or Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Hint: it has to do with all of those things.
As you can no doubt ascertain, this film is neither easily categorized nor concisely encapsulated. This is the beauty of it. Upstream Color presents its intentionally fractured narrative to you almost as a Rorschach test, so that what you see in it comes from what you possess within yourself. Much of the movie is wordless. When people do speak, the words they say may or may not sound as though they have a context. Events often appear to have little connection. And yet, Upstream Color definitely leads to something. Even if you can't immediately pinpoint why, the final moments deliver a sense of closure. A journey that begins as alternately fascinating, sad, confusing, and mysterious ultimately proves to be touching. This is because Carruth knows exactly what he's doing. His film's mysteries are enticing rather than maddening. We are drawn in so that, at the end, we sense the characters arriving at the destination they didn't know they were headed toward. It bears mentioning that, despite its malleable quality, Upstream Color is not meaningless. I firmly believe that the film is about something specific. It adds up. The difference is that Carruth doesn't tell you what to think about his theme, or from which angle to view it.
Do you enjoy movies that steadfastly refuse to spoonfeed you? I do, so long as they feel as though someone is firmly in the driver's seat, which is most definitely the case here. The level of artistry at work is clearly visible, and the performances are effective across the board. I got sucked into the wildly ambitious Upstream Color, in much the same way that Kris and Jeff – and even The Sampler - get sucked into their shared adventure. None of us knew where we were going. We all encountered unexpected things along the way. We all had to make sense of where we ended up. I can't speak for them, but I enjoyed my experience immensely.
( out of four)
Upstream Color is unrated but contains sensuality and a few mildly disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.
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