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Shane Carruth’s rapturous Upstream Color

Regaining Senses
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  April 24, 2013


DRAWN TOGETHER The couple at the center of Upstream Color.

Any good film student knows that the cinematic text demands to be read. A camera represents a perspective, an edit depicts a relevant shift in perspective, and in most any film worth its salt, the contents and contrasts of given moments can illuminate, amplify, or alter the text's emotional impact.

One of the many triumphs of Shane Carruth's second film, Upstream Color, is that it demands to be heard as well as read. Upstream Color is every bit as ingeniously plotted as his debut, the byzantine and notoriously low-budget time-travel cult hit Primer, and it begins under similarly austere circumstances. The film's first act or movement, in which a woman (Amy Seimetz) survives a microbiologically drug-induced home invasion, is rooted in a terrifying silence. Seimetz's Kris undergoes a trauma which leaves her broke, jobless, and more or less senseless.

She hides behind headphones on public transportation, as though terrified of her surroundings, until she is slowly lulled out of her torpor by a stranger named Jeff. As Carruth's film unearths the basis of their intense, mysterious bond, his soundtrack rehearses a symphony composed of electrical and natural elements (rocks, rivers, power lines) manipulated into music. This rehearsal is depicted as a mysterious, God-like figure credited as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), records these phenomena as the couple find their footing. If the ostensible mystery of the film is the origin of the plant-based drug that seems to have disrupted the identities of these young lovers, Carruth is more concerned with how the couple can simultaneously reclaim their identities and sustain a romance that seems achingly true despite its potentially scientific genesis. Reduced to its essence, Upstream Color is a love story about how romance can survive its mysterious and random origins and attain an enduring transcendence.

Such a symphonic aspiration elevates a visual language that is familiar to followers of directors like Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson. Much like Anderson's The Master, Carruth delivers crucial plot elements in quick reveals, demanding the audience shade in the relations between events and characters. (I more or less elide plot detail here because it's fun to figure out, hard to explain, and but a catalyst for the film's major concerns.) And like Malick's last few films, Carruth is newly, inventively interested in exploring notions of fate and eternal cycles of life, as indicated by the recurrence of Walden in the film. The Sampler's occasionally Thoreauvian presence in Upstream Color is handled with delicate ambiguity by Carruth: recording sounds, gauging moods, capable of performing both murder and miracles, it remains tantalizingly unclear to what extent the character is a manipulative power or a sort of antenna collecting the spiritual urges of humanity.

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