The experience of watching Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color—described in one synopsis as a “romantic thriller science fiction film”—is a heady one; it’s not always clear what’s going on, and even when you’ve begun to piece together the plot it remains uncertain why it matters, though it’s so visually stunning that it makes up for its largely incoherent plot. The film opens with a sequence in which Chrissy (Amy Seimetz), an attractive young professional, is kidnapped by a male stranger who proceeds to perform a bizarre set of medical experiments on her body; we later learn, or perhaps we don’t, that her kidnapper uses tissue from his human and animal subjects to harvest a particularly brilliant species of orchid. It’s an elaborate MacGuffin for what becomes the story of the process by which Chrissy and a fellow victim (played by Carruth), who have since fallen in love but who remember nothing about their abduction, begin to discover what has been done to them.
Upstream Color is being compared to the films of Kubrick and Malick in its visual boldness as well as in its narrative ambiguity, and while I’m not yet convinced that Carruth is a first-rate filmmaker (n.b.: his previous film, Primer, is unseen by me) it’s clear that he has a killer instinct for how to put a film together. Upstream Color is an unapologetically demanding and often overwhelming film; it makes no attempt to pander to its audience or dole out familiar conventions, and it moves in hypnotic, disorienting rhythms. One way of describing it would be to say that, as with much of Malick’s films, it deals primarily in montage sequences rather than discrete scenes. Carruth, who also co-edited the film, expertly overlays images, snatches of spoken dialogue, and a near-constant electronic musical score (also written by Carruth, natch) to incredibly intense effect. Each sequence washes imperceptibly into the next. Technically, it’s an impressive feat.
Underneath the virtuosity of the film’s editing, one gets the sense that there’s not much there. The iciness of Carruth’s images, and the taut precision with which they’re put together, are perfectly suited to the paranoid intensity of the characters, but it’s difficult to know what, if anything, Carruth is trying to say by invoking a somewhat ludicrous mad-scientist plot. A dazzling technician, he shows a certain clunkiness when it comes to dealing with themes or ideas, as is painfully evident in the film’s final sequence, which borders on the maudlin. It’s unclear what, if anything, you’re meant to “take away” from Upstream Color, though, to Carruth’s credit, it’s so beautifully mounted that you probably won’t much care.