My immediate reaction to Upstream Color was to rest my head on my chin and think, ‘Hmmm…’ It’s certainly not a film that is looking to make things easy for its audience. A couple of weeks later, and I’m still not sure what to make of this film – it is an experience that is in equal parts perplexing and mesmerising.
Imagine if you woke up with no money and no memory of your life over the past several days. Kris (Amy Seimetz) and others like her lose everything when they are abducted and their minds taken over by a strange man; a thief who controls them via a strange grub. When he’s left them, the controlling creature is removed by ‘The Sampler’ and transferred to pigs, where he looks after them. She meets Jeff (Shane Carruth, also the writer and director). He has been through the same thing. The two are connected to the organisms and their life cycles, and what happens to one affects the other. Shaken, unsure, and desperately trying to understand, or perhaps forget, what has happened to them, Kris and Jeff take comfort in each other, fall in love, and try to live their life while battling with feelings of complete and utter helplessness.
That plot description does the film no justice at all and all I can do is say I’m sorry and that it was very hard to describe what happens in Upstream Color in a way that captures the rather fluidic nature of the story. It doesn’t fit into any one genre neatly – it is science fiction, fantasy, drama, and a melancholic romance. It is entirely up to the audience what you want to take away from it.
I was completely taken with the romance between Kris and Jeff, two broken people who are desperately trying to live a normal life. Drawn together unconsciously by the lives of the organisms that had once taken them both over, the story of Kris and Jeff is the emotional force that keeps this film grounded and brings a much needed humanizing element to what is, really, a very bizarre film (I’ve seen The Tree of Life and that is nothing compared to this). Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth are both exceptional.
The most intriguing part of the film is not why these people are being taken over (the thief who kidnaps them steals all their money – maybe there is more to it, but it’s not hard to see how he benefits), but the purpose and intent of the man who steps in afterwards. Not referred to in the film by name, but listed in the credits online as ‘The Sampler’ (Andrew Sensenig), many people will have different opinions and theories on what his role really is. He collects the grubs from the victims once the thief is finished with them and he transfers the grubs to pigs. He keeps the pigs on an isolated farm, cares for them, and through them he can glimpse the lives of the people they are connected to. Is he malevolent? I didn’t quite get that vibe. At least not all the time…Does he know how the lives of the people controlled have been affected? I think so. I thought of him as some kind of omniscient being, who tried to understand the lives of these people, hurting them more in the process. There are other ideas swirling around in my head as well, but they’ll have to be put aside for now.
Along with everything else I’ve talked about here, Upstream Color is a visually spectacular, and aurally entrancing experience. The entire film has an almost musical quality to it, with a tone that is at times disturbing and at others ethereal. It’s a film that deals with ideas of fate and the interconnectivity of life and loneliness, and does so while sweeping its audience up in a spectacular array of colour and beauty. It has left me a little befuddled, but I was never bored. The more I let it sink in, the more I find I like.