'Upstream Color' Review: A Heady, Intuitive Triumph

What a beautiful thing, Upstream Color. Shane Carruth's second film is a melange of surprises and delights. For an audience familiar with Primer, Carruth's time-layering ouroboros of a debut, one element may be more surprising than all others: simplicity. Though the telling of this new film is by no means conventional, the core is an elegant idea, yet one rich enough to foster myriad interpretations.

Crafted with an awe-inspiring confidence, Upstream Color establishes a strange and frightening sci-fi framework, then works within that frame to probe the nature of human relationships, and our proximity to and power over the forces that define us. The wild elements of the plot allow Carruth to examine love and destiny with unexpected sensitivity. Upstream Color belongs in the company of 2001 and Solaris; it stands with the very best that speculative fiction has to offer.

Let's skirt around the plot to some extent. Leave it at this: Kris (Amy Seimetz) is victimized by one of the most unusual criminal schemes you've ever seen. Her halting recovery is punctuated by a chance encounter with Jeff (Carruth), and as their lives begin to revolve around one another, they discover two things: first, that they're rather alike. Second, that there is an influence acting on their lives — perhaps THE influence, in a grand sense.

Want more of a tease than that? Watch the trailers and know that every concept within has a specific, deliberate point. The pigs, the synchronization, the water hypnosis; all chosen for a reason, every one a factor in this portrait of how we relate to one another, and how we attempt to control our lives. If any one element seems quirky or idiosyncratic, perhaps we can agree that the thing Carruth is investigating is equally unique on a person to person basis.

Compared to Primer, Carruth's command of filmmaking craft has taken a quantum leap forward. I'll say it again: this film oozes confidence (tempered with control). Upstream Color incidentally poses the sort of questions other films would . What is the full capacity of the human brain? Can the organ fully override the body? Is our soul, our essence, fundamentally disconnected from our day-to-day existence?

Further ideas — the ones more crucial to the film — are big indeed: who "writes" our lives? What draws us to one another, and can we recognize a crucial turning point, and act on it? Carruth focuses on the mysteries of the way two people can seem to vibrate on the same frequency. At one point, the characters' memories begins slipstreaming into one another in a way that glows from the screen like a neon truth.

I was delighted, yet made very deeply uneasy, by the first twenty minutes of the film. There, it is closest to science fiction, and Carruth's imagination takes wing in that first act. He creates a scenario that would be the envy of Dick, or Lem, or Murakami. More impressive is the manner in which Carruth goes on to integrate those speculative ideas into a thoughtful narrative line that reflects on creativity, moral culpability, belief systems, and the simple — and yet very complex — relationships we share with the people to whom we're closest to in life.

More distinctively cinematic than almost any other film in recent memory, Upstream Color is told with pure, primary tools: determined cross-cutting of sound and image; a score that evolves to reflect the relationship at the center of the film; a cast that eliminates any distraction from the core ideas. Amy Seimetz is simply excellent as Kris. As Jeff, Carruth doesn't act with the same command he applies to other aspects of filmmaking, but his performance finds a rhythm. If nothing else, he's a skilled enough director to work around his own acting limitations. The supporting cast is natural and effective.

Dialogue all but goes by the wayside in the final act, as Carruth and editor David Lowery tell the story with an undiluted mixture of sound and image. Rather than constraining the characters, that nearly wordless storytelling lets the narrative flower. For a heady film, Upstream Color is impressively intuitive. The idea of the mind/body relationship comes up again: this is an intellelectual exercise that can only be completed by feeling your way along. Open up, and let this movie suggest things to you. It is rich with ideas, and shares them freely.

/Film score: 10 out of 10