Upstream Color (2013)
Written and directed by Shane Carruth
Produced by Shane Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair, Meredith Burke, Toby Halbrooks, Scott Douglass, Brent Goodman
Starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
From shoat to stream to orchid to larva unto man, an elusive parasite’s life cycle in triplex stages is exploited by punctilious criminals (Sensenig, Martins) to defraud victims whose ingestion of it renders them supremely suggestible by dint of biochemical hypnosis. Two such dupes (Seimetz, Carruth) whose lives were so ruined clairvoyantly explore their traumatic repercussions together as they gradually realize what’s befallen them, and unravel its mystery by tracing cycle to source.
Primer‘s Gordian anachrony confounds comprehension during a first or second viewing, but here writer/producer/director/DP/cameraman/co-editor/composer/co-star Carruth masterfully balances oracularity and lucidity with direct yet disordered disclosure. He also nimbly juggles two balls so often fumbled by other authors of science fiction by inseparably mingling his story’s personal and fantastic aspects.
For his painterly eye, Carruth’s every slow zoom, brisk pan and still close-up is memorably picturesque. Striking shots from mundane, hydrous and subcutaneous settings graphically illustrate events best left unspoken.
Luminous photography that alternates between beautiful vividity and slight desaturation with a faint, milky haze catches the eye in every carefully framed shot. The organism’s phases are pictured with actual and simulated microphotography. Carruth utilizes digital cameras with an expertise excelling that of many DPs who’ve far more experience with that nearly nascent technology.
Contemplative shots of this picture linger meaningfully, but during its procedural and ritualistic scenes, editorial rapidity effectively propels pace. To exemplify telegnostic nexus of empathy, action, and location, Carruth and co-editor David Lowery intricately cut hundreds of correspondent shots together with a rhythm that’s as engaging as demonstrative. Much of Seimetz’s and Carruth’s conversational dialogue may initially seem haphazardly sequenced during lengthy montages, but it expresses their mutual fascination and frustration as they struggle to probe one another and determine whose memories are whose.
Carruth’s all but playing himself, and his cast assume his sober, saturnine deportment. After a string of roles as battered and amatory characters in genre fare such as Bitter Feast, A Horrible Way to Die, The Off Hours, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic, You’re Next, et cetera, Seimetz seems to effortlessly underplay her harrowed protagonist. How much of her quietly uneasy intimacy with Carruth was genuine at this early stage isn’t publicly known, but their blossoming chemistry, with its enamored ebullitions, is essential to the cryptaesthetic sympathy that their lovers share.
Sampled strings, piano, gong, and resonating, droning, arpeggiated, beeping, buzzing, warbling, echoed samples and synthesizers harmonize mesmerizingly in Carruth’s music to amplify without ever diverting from his onscreen activity.
Every stage of the vermicious organism’s life is engrossingly depicted in speciously imaginative, often gruesome detail. Likewise, routines assigned to distract each hypnotized host, and the habitudes that they subsequently inspire, are ingeniously conceived. Lucid dreams of obverse scenes that transpire in austere offices and bathrooms include a revelational and retributive climax not to be forgotten.
At 8:33, Martins faintly uptalks a line. How dismaying it is to hear a masterpiece momentarily marred by millennialism!
Would that more filmmakers understood their medium’s power to convey by ephemeral images rather than graceless exposition, or trusted their audience’s capacity for inference. Carruth’s science fiction is truly sui generis: an elegant tale presenting simple, novel concepts in a complex idiom that’s no less challenging for its accessibility. His retirement and troubles that have worsened in public view represent a great loss to an independent American cinema that needs its few finest talents more than ever. Even if the Texan auteur’s second movie proves to be his last, it’s perhaps the best of the 21st century to so penetratingly straddle convention and experiment.