Review: 'Upstream Color'

This review was originally published on January 28, 2013 as part of's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Although Shane Carruth may be a cryptic man, it's clear that he's no slouch. A former software engineer who made his mark on the indie scene nine years ago with the high-concept, low-budget, time-travel brain-buster "Primer," Carruth has finally returned with a similarly striking follow-up, "Upstream Color," which he wrote, directed, co-edited, co-produced, shot, composed for, stars in and is self-distributing.

Here's the simplest synopsis that comes to mind: young professional Kris (Amy Seimetz) is ambushed and brainwashed by a complete stranger (Thiago Martins) and subsequently empties her bank accounts. After recovering as best she can with the help of a meddlesome farmer (Andrew Sensenig), Kris gets back on her feet and eventually befriends Jeff (Carruth), drawn to him without either realizing that they've endured the same trauma and are emotionally tethered for it.

In an inversion of "Primer's" knotty narrative, "Upstream" offers a relatively straightforward story that is nonetheless steeped in abstract concepts of transcendental pharmacology upon which Carruth hangs themes of love, hope, fear, fate, free will, memory, identity, creativity, spirituality, the control of nature and the nature of control like so many paper chains. The result is as willfully oblique as his first film was densely foreboding, a rumination on the perils and pleasures of interpersonal connection that would seem to refuse any easy connection with even the most curious of audiences.

It's not an impenetrable endeavor, though. The editing rhythms are hypnotic, the dialogue spare, and even borderline daft notions involving people and pigs are given the same weight of universal significance as innocuous meet-cutes and puzzling routines. Revealing a sprawling scope at a rather deliberate pace, it's the kind of metaphysical mystery that feels like it could be knocked right over by a strong wind, yet cracked wide open with a strong drink.

What it's all about is anyone's guess (hint: Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" plays a prominent role throughout), but Carruth's exacting eye (and ear) for compositions both aural and visual — when combined with Seimetz's unfailingly frail performance — invite our trust into entering this world and watching their characters try to make sense of things just as we ourselves do. While I'm not entirely sure what to make of "Upstream Color" on a first viewing, I do know this much: Each of Carruth's two films manage the all-too-rare feat of making the world seem a bit bigger after they're over. Not bad for a one-man operation.