(Shane Carruth, 2012)
In case his singular, incredible debut Primer wasn't enough proof, Upstream Color makes it clear that Shane Carruth is a visionary artist unlike just about anybody else working in modern cinema. In any cinema, ever, for that matter.
His technical command appears absolute, and combined with a uniquely poetic style - a little reminiscent of modern Terrence Malick but with key differences - it makes for cinema that is beguiling, impressionistic, visually stunning, and hypnotic. Consider the level of control required by Carruth; he wrote, produced, edited, photographed, scored, acted in and directed this film. This is genuine auteurism, and the artistic success of the result is a persuasive argument for the value of the multi-hyphenate.
It also means that Upstream Color is a film for grown-ups; it makes few concessions to a general audience. There is no exposition, and the storytelling is elliptical, driven by a free associative style which feels symphonic, and determined as much by tone and cumulative effect as it is by plot.
The story centres on Kris (Amy Seimetz, extremely moving) a graphic designer who has her life destroyed by an encounter with a thief. No ordinary thief, however. This one uses a drug harvested from blue orchids to infect roundworm. These roundworm then infect his victims from inside, rendering them utterly suggestible to his commands. He has Kris turn her house into equity which he takes, empties all of her bank accounts, and helps himself to her collection of valuable coins. When he leaves, she is lured by a mysterious pig-farming sound recordist, who surgically removes the roundworm and implants it in one of his pigs. She returns to her life, unaware of anything that has happened, to find herself fired from her job, penniless and nursing a strange anxiety alongside several unconscious obsessions.
When she meets Jeff (Carruth), they find themselves drawn together, and it gradually emerges that something similar may have happened to him. The question then becomes: what has happened to them? And how can they find some measure of peace together in the aftermath?
Like Primer, that plot contains a few ideas straight from sci-fi, but Carruth sets it within the real world, and his poetry is that of the beautiful mundane. He uses depth of field with an acute understanding of just how a focus pull can effect the way an audience takes a scene, and the long wordless passages here are Pure Cinema at its most effective. The scenes of the stumbling, detached courtship between Jeff and Kris are more meet-eerie than meet-cute, and their co-dependency as a couple becomes both moving and disturbing largely because of Carruth's visuals.
That is not to underestimate his skill as a dramatist; there are scenes here filled with a very human messiness, and the theme of alienation from the modern world and its cold public and private spaces bubbles under the surface here, alongside explorations of our relationship with nature and the way we are affected by sound.
The result is almost overwhelming; emotional, somewhat baffling but always gripping, it showcases Carruth's talent in all of the disciplines he has taken up. His score is by turns powerful and intriguing, his photography bold and startlingly impressive, the editing precise and poetic.
If the film is enigmatic and filled with secret depths, then that seems a positive thing as well, this masterful piece will surely repay obsessive fans and repeat viewings. But based on a first viewing, it is a cinematic rapture; lovely, disturbing, mysterious.