The six of us who saw Primer, Shane Carruth's mind-splintering 2004 debut, have spent the past nine years a) trying to untangle its labyrinthine plot and b) waiting for his next film. We may be no closer to the former, but the latter is finally here, and if you thought Primer was baffling then prepare to set your baffle readiness condition to BAFCON 1, because Upstream Colour provokes weapons-grade bafflement of the most baffling order.
Like this year's similarly mindfucking A Field In England
and Only God Forgives
, Upstream Colour has no desire to be conveniently synopsised. Take a look at the official press release and you'll get some idea of the level of bonkers you're up against:
A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.
What's more, at no point does Kevin James fall over. This isn't Saturday night entertainment, this is a meditation, an exploration; something to devote your full attention to not just for the 96 minutes it takes to unfold (and fold in on itself) but for hours, possibly days afterwards. An attempt to convey its plot seems reductive when plot feels secondary to the experience, so to say that it involves thought control via menticidal parasites, some mildly Cronenbergian body horror, a deeply unsettling crime, some cute pigs and an unconventional romance may pique your interest but won't really help to impart any sense of what it's like to actually watch.
Upstream Colour is neatly split into three distinct acts, though, and that seems as good a way as any to approach it. The first concerns the aforementioned crime, of which Kris (Amy Seimetz) is the victim. It's uncomfortably fascinating to watch it develop, and with minimal dialogue and ruthlessly elliptical editing Carruth expects and demands that you keep up, especially when the pigs get involved. It sets the tone for what follows, but believe it or not, this is the easy bit.
Even this guy doesn't understand the pigs, and they're his pigs
Act II sees this film's twisted idea of a meet-cute, between Kris and Jeff (Carruth). A love story develops, but with sinister undertones: did they meet by accident? Why are they both so screwed up? What do they have in common? Maybe the film answers some of those questions, maybe it doesn't. But Seimetz's performance in particular is so natural that you feel like you could help her out if only you could untangle whatever the hell's going on.
The final act offers revelations and, to some extent, resolutions, but by this point you may need to have actually moved into Shane Carruth's brain to truly appreciate them. Themes of love, fate, choice and identity swirl frustratingly just out of reach, but if you stop trying to grab them and just let it all wash over you you'll find it a far more satisfying experience. And once the credits roll, you'll either be running for the hills in need of a heavy dose of normality or glued to your seat waiting for the next showing. Like Primer, Upstream Colour is a film that demands repeat viewings if you want to probe its mysteries to the core.
Jeff's offer to probe Kris's mysteries to the core didn't go down well
As director, writer, producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer, Shane Carruth is indisputably an auteur, and although his latest has a hint of the Malicks about it (there's a strong whiff of The Tree Of Life here), he's a unique and exciting talent in American independent cinema right now. Upstream Colour may be a little too difficult to love, but it's too intriguing to ignore. You might find it unbearably pretentious, but you can't deny that it's unlike anything else out there, and for that it - and its author - should be celebrated.