Upstream Color (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Upstream Color (2013)

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Huddling togetherKyleLikeNewUpstream Color encapsulates what may be the closest thing I'll find to my version of a “religious experience” in my adult life—I don't even like using that term, because it implies some kind of conversion, and while the characters certainly undergo such changes, the feeling director, producer, star, and all-around auteur Shane Carruth's movie creates in the audience is one of affirmation. This is a difficult movie to talk about, because it exists almost solely on an emotional level. There is the experience of watching it, of what it made you feel or think of during that time, and afterward you're left with something intangible, an impression that makes you want to go back and revisit it again immediately.

On a basic level, the story concerns a young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is the target of a bizarre sort of abduction and violation, the true nature of which we only gradually come to understand. She is then let go, and this sets into motion the remaining events of the film. You could say more than that, much more, but to do so would miss the point. The plot—which is surprisingly straightforward for a movie so many have claimed to be veiled in confusion and the kind of deliberate obstruction of Carruth's first feature, Primer—is just a means of getting to the raw experiences the film wants to create.Floating alongWithout giving away how, much of Upstream Color concerns the idea of identity and shared experience—and how one is shaped by the other. The device it uses to convey shared experiences (and if you see the movie, you'll understand why I'm being vague about what is shared and between whom) is ingenious, weaving together images, sounds, and sometimes, we think, even memories to create what seems like a single, unified scene out of what we know are disparate moments in time and place. Carruth clearly understands the visual language of film, and expertly creates associations between characters with visual cues, but the sound design is often the real triumph of these moments. Rocks sliding down a corrugated steel wall blend with the sound of an office copier, buzzing power lines become indistinguishable from music playing elsewhere—the effect sounds gimmicky, but it never feels that way. There is a definition of surrealism that involves the juxtaposition of two ideas, the relationship of which can only be fleetingly grasped by the mind—Carruth juxtaposes images and moments, the relationship of which can only be grasped on an instinctual emotional level, but not explained.

Several sequences stand out above the rest as the most powerful in the film. One involves two sets of characters (characters may not be the right word for all of them) sharing in the experience of an intense loss, though only one pair is experiencing it on a literal level. Because the other two characters don't understand the source of their pain or how to deal with it, their reactions defy reason. They strike out at anything they can, and take comfort only in the knowledge that they don't have to bear the experience alone. By using such a plot structure, where the characters are denied a reason for their suffering even though the audience sees it, Carruth creates a profound representation of universal loss—the immediate reason is unimportant, only the feeling of helplessness it leaves.

There is another character—the most fascinating thing about the film—who is a complex mix of cruelty, wonder, loneliness, and need. His role can't be explained, but he serves more importance than just his immediate affect on the other characters. It's easy to see spiritual symbolism in his scenes (I don't say religious, because the film's approach is too broad to evoke any specific group, and this wouldn't be relevant anyway), but there's more to it than that. The movie's best scene involves us initially coming to understand the character as a villain, and then through as intense and emotional an examination of empathy as I've seen, makes him a tragic figure. It's difficult, and beautiful, and it knocks you straight off your feet.Listening in the darkI said that the plot was fairly straightforward once the movie has run its full course—that doesn't mean there's no mystery. There is certainly that, and as the story progresses more mystery builds around what we are seeing, but as the film enters its last act, all the pieces have fallen into place in such a way that a basic narrative can be constructed. Some of the genius of Upstream Color is the way it disarms us to what it's doing on a more basic, human level by structuring the plot to appeal to our impulse to “figure it out.” The emotional punches land precisely because we're not ready for them, as in life we rarely are, and the cumulative effect is the assurance that, like the characters, we are always building and rebuilding identities almost by accident.

The ending approaches a dangerous point of concerning itself too directly with the plot, and I would have liked a less conventional climactic confrontation between two of the characters, but the movie is dealing in large ideas and part of its strength is how Carruth keeps them rooted always in one specific individual. If resolving Kris' story means some of the other characters don't get their due, then so it goes. He was probably wise to keep the running time to around 90 minutes, though I would gladly have continued watching for twice that.

This is a great film, every bit as bold and unique as Primer, though grander. What many saw in Malick's Tree of Life two years ago is here condensed and focused. To capture a sense of absolute wonder at not only the complexity of the world we are part of, but also of the significance of our own relationships and interactions in giving that context meaning is probably one of the broadest definitions one could offer for art's purpose. To do it in a way that can be felt so clearly and yet never quite touched is amazing.

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Upstream Color - TailUpstream Color (2013)

Written and directed by Shane Carruth.
Starring Carruth and Amy Seimetz.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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