Upstream Color grasps the audience by the lapels and drags it from bewilderment to gratification and back again. There’s beauty in its glorious weirdness and a vital need for engagement with its world if you want to get anything out of the experience. And for fans of writer, director and star Shane Carruth’s first movie Primer, it’s just as capable of leaving your mind seething with questions.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth) are thrown together in a tentative romance, initially unaware that their lightly ruined past lives were dismantled as a result of a particularly weird theft. Before they meet, Amy has been drugged and manipulated into giving cash to a criminal, whose techniques include the infusion of a worm-like organism into her body. A sound technician and pig farmer extracts the worm, transfers it to one of his animals and leaves Amy with her life in tatters and no memory of what happened.
As Amy and Jeff connect and become closer, it is apparent that their lives and memories are somehow conjoined by this contact with the parasite they both unknowingly hosted in the past, which lives on inside the pigs. They pick apart the images and sounds that haunt them and attempt to retrace the unremembered trauma they experienced at the hands of both the thief and the farmer.
With little dialogue, the film instead conveys its meaning through actions, showing the audience the life cycle of the trans-species organism at its core. But this is more than just an off-kilter sci-fi film, and there are many layers of meaning contained within even the oddest moments. The foundations of human relationships are given a pummelling by Carruth’s camera, and it’s not without cynicism, though it ends on a hopeful note and, more than anything, wants to stimulate discussion and contemplation rather than in-the-moment emotions.
Upstream Color is similar to the indie game Fez, in that it encourages the viewer’s intellectual participation and uses all the tools of its chosen medium to convey a narrative that is more meaningful than the most verbose, exposition-heavy counterpart you can name. It’s only 96 minutes long, but you’ll be thinking about it for years to come. Point your face at this fascinating film.