Upstream Color ***** (out of five)
Shane Carruth is an extraordinary filmmaker. His second feature proudly follows his debut Primer (2004) in its audacity, intellect and astonishing originality. Carruth does not make films for fools, but nor does he try and fool anyone; if you’re willing to look, it’s all there.
It would be easy, perhaps facile, to call Primer and Upstream Color “puzzles”. They are not, they are films, and brilliant ones at that. But they share elements with smart puzzles, those that reveal layers upon close inspection. Because that is precisely what Carruth’s two films do. At first watch – no matter how intense – they may remain elliptical. But – more than any other films I can think of – the more you look (or in this case, watch) the more they reveal, and the more they provide that beautiful, joyous sense of, “Of course! It all makes sense.”
To describe the plot of Upstream Color in any detail would be more of a crime even than to detail that of Primer. Let’s just say that a criminally scientific experiment on a young woman results in an unlikely relationship being formed that opens up a quest for answers and truth. Beyond that, there is a pandora’s box of delights for the active viewer, a viewing experience quite unlike anything else going on in modern cinema. If I was a theatre owner, I’d offer a repeat viewing for free as long as you brought one new paying guest; in this way, much like Carruth’s films, I would perpetuate an algorithm that may ebb and flow but ultimately grow.
These are science fiction films set in the here and now, unburdened by special effects (or, for that matter, anything close to a big budget). They are films with excellent performances by unseen casts who obviously have a deep understanding and trust in their auteur’s vision. And they are beautiful – visually, sonically and intellectually.
Upstream Color, like Primer, is difficult – perhaps more so. As such it won’t be around for long. Do yourself a favor – see Primer immediately, and then Upstream Color while it is still on the cinema screen. You can always look at them, and analyze them, later. Catch the beauty, and then, later on, ride the complex wave deep into Carruth’s obviously very imaginative, active and deeply switched-on mind. It’s a fantastic trip.