With an experimental style mostly his own, Writer, Director, Producer, Editor, Musician and Co-Star Shane Carruth has crafted a compelling and entertaining film, even if I’m still not certain I understand all of it.
Don’t get me wrong. I know what happens in the narrative. Using stunning visuals and always captivating audio, Carruth tells a fairly linear, relatively complex and unpredictable story in a non-linear style. That is one of the things that makes Upstream Color so good; there is never a moment we wonder what’s happening. Nor is there a moment where the story takes a back seat to experimentation. The two elements are given equal treatment.
Ditto that for the protagonist, Kris (Amy Seimetz), marking another reason Upstream Color is the best experimental film I have seen thus far in 2013. Kris is a well-developed character with flaws and strengths, and she is both recognizable and sympathetic. During several of the film’s key moments, we feel her emotion and we wish we could help her.
I’m not certain I understand all of Upstream Color’s symbolism. Or all of its themes. Really, that might be yet another reason this picture is as good as it is. If there weren’t parts of it that fuel debate and cause confusion, the film might not be so moving.
What evidence supports the idea that this film is about rebirth, in much more subtle fashion than Gravity? What evidence contradicts the rebirth theory? Is the movie about recovering from addiction? Working through challenges in relationships? Supporting those you love? Revenge? The power of cylces and the difficulty of breaking them? The mindlessness and presence of evil? Loneliness even in a crowd? More that I haven’t considered?
Even the title works on several levels. First, The orchids’ color comes from what is downstream. Second, only by moving forward in life, rather than remaining in an endless and unsatisfying loop, do we find color (read: happiness). Moreover, when something feels right, persistence in the face of challenges can pay off. And I’m probably not smart enough to recognize the rest of the levels.
As stated previously, Carruth gives us stunning visuals and even better audio. It might not be as good as Gravity’s or The Grandmaster’s, but it’s close. The images and sound convey the story, of course, like they do in almost every other movie, but they also bring forth most of Upstream Color’s emotion.
Which is not to say the actors do not do their share of emoting, as well. Amy Seimetz is perfectly cast as Kris, offering a natural intelligence, bewilderment and angst that fits the character before and after a life ruining event. During the event itself, Seimetz is even better as an effectively hypnotized prey with no recognition of what’s happening to her.
Playing Thief, Thiago Martins is also exceptional, delivering a creepy performance filled with equal parts foreboding and charisma. Neither Kris nor the audience can free themselves from him, even after he suddenly disappears.
Shane Carruth is equally good playing Jeff, Kris’s persistent would-be love interest and eventual confidante. As an actor, Carruth is Martins and Seimetz’s equal.
As a character, Jeff is not as well treated as Kris, or even as Thief, really. I know Jeff and Kris connect on a metaphysical level, not just an emotional one, but we still do not understand Jeff well enough to fully comprehend his reasons for working so diligently to earn Kris’s trust before he knows the connection they share. Furthermore, his appearance in Kris’s life, after undergoing some of the same experiences, feels a bit too coincidental. It might have helped if Jeff had been featured earlier in the film, in something of a parellel story to Kris’, even if his story were given less treatment than hers.
Similarly, Sampler, played with subtle skill by Andrew Sensenig, is something of an enigma. On the one hand, I like that. Carruth doesn’t judge Sampler for us, doesn’t suggest whether or not Sampler deserves moral condemnation, and that is a wise decision. It makes the character feel more layered than the narrative and filmmaking actually make him. On the other hand, it means the character’s motivations are not explored, which makes it hard to connect with him. Too much exploration of Sampler would have been dangerous insofar as it might have answered our moral questions, but not developing him enough is just as dangerous. We do not know Sampler, and so we do not feel the full emotional weight of Kris’ final decisions.
Still, Upstream Color is fantastic. It is accessible enough that it can probably appeal to a wide audience, but it is also ambiguous enough that will appeal to art-house crowds. I recommend this film without reservation.