Let ‘Upstream Color’ carry you on a painful search for truth
Director: Shane Carruth
Stars: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth
5 (out of 5) Globes
However dense Shane Carruth’s 2004 time travel romp “Primer” was — which is to say, to put it kindly, absurdly — one could at least offer a basic summary: Two guys accidentally invent a time machine and things get out of control. No such luck with “Upstream Color,” Carruth’s belated follow-up, which is even more complicated but without the safety net of a genre standby premise. To wit: It involves a woman (Amy Seimetz, a filmmaker-actor as well) who, as the picture begins, is abducted and brainwashed. There is something involving inchworms distilled into tea. She eventually meets a man (Carruth) who appears to have experienced a similar, or maybe the exact same, event. They enter into a kind of relationship comprised of inscrutable rituals and the search for truth, whatever that may be, and which may involve a farmer who raises pigs and performs ambient music.
The Internet’s dedicated obsessive time-wasters solved “Primer,” and they’re doubtless all over “Upstream,” which makes even less sense. But treating either film as a puzzle is to miss its true essence. One doesn’t need to have a firm grasp on the multiple timelines in “Primer” to grok its portrayal of new science gone madly off the rails; nor does one need to understand what skin grafts on pigs have to do with anything in “Upstream Color” to get something profound out of its portrayal of love borne out of shared trauma. The characters played by Seimetz and Carruth have had their lives upturned by a severe disturbance, and once they meet, they block out the world that does not share their past, descending into a conjoined insanity that makes sense to them, if not anyone else.
For the record, the plot makes a sort of sense as it’s in motion. No filmmaker this heavily into plot has been this disinterested in expository dialogue; “Primer” drowned in technical gobbledygook, while the chatter here is usually off-hand and barely coherent when audible. It’s clear Carruth intends this as an emotional experience, a delving into real pain experienced by 30-somethings who have yet to find stability. He composes the film like music, in movements. There are few “proper” scenes, but plenty of montages, and the final third is a dialogue-free affair that rides on semi-sensible imagery against Carruth’s mournful score. While it’s happening in front of you, it’s the most arresting film in town. Just don’t try to explain it to strangers.