A woman sits on her living room floor, lips parched, transcribing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden by hand. Each time she finishes a page, she folds the paper into a loop on a paper chain and takes a sip of water. Lately, she shares her house with a man whose face shines like the sun. She does not eat nor sleep, merely waits to carry out another order by the faceless man who holds her in thrall. These are memories that Kris (Amy Seimetz) will not soon recall. She awakens days later, passed out in her car in the middle of the road. She attempts to tell work she has been sick all these days, but still loses her job. She learns that she has taken out a home equity loan on her house, but the money has vanished. Her life has been destroyed during her bout with amnesia, and she finds strange scars all over her body. She staggers through the film punch-drunk, clinging to a modest job and living in a state of constant anxiety.
In Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, the director abandons a logical progression of events as each character’s emotional state refuses to cede control. Appropriately, the editing follows broken conversations, or forgotten moments of intimacy, without much clarity of time and space. However, it would be a mistake to look at the fragments of the film and deny the compelling narrative lying beneath its obscurity. For those wanting to know what goes on in the film, they must simply take a closer look at the surrounding details. To begin with, Upstream Color follows an unknown man who breeds parasites from up flowers in a greenhouse. Soon, he takes these parasites to a bar, and eventually drags Kris out into an alley when no one is looking, forcing one of the parasites down her throat. Soon, the parasite exerts a powerful form of mind control on Kris, making her pliable to the strange man’s suggestions. Slowly, he bends the woman to his will, and ultimately steals everything of worth from her. As Kris awakens to find her life ruined, she remains aimless until she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), whose life has been ruined in the same way.
In a touching gesture, neither character tells the other they have been through this ordeal, simply because they cannot remember the lost time. All the same, the two form a fragile intimacy, in which their frayed psyches seek refuge in the other’s care. As the film goes on, the path of their relationship remains unclear. At some point, they actually get married, but the event passes without much notice. Despite this fact, the film begins to build momentum as the characters, almost without trying, draw closer to the mystery of their affliction. In a pivotal scene, Jeff watches Kris dive into a pool over and over, coming up for air and spouting lines from Walden. Strangely, this act forms a habit soon forgotten, taking the form of a lost dream. However, Jeff witnesses the act and begins to write the words down, feeling in them something of import.
As Kris and Jeff draw closer to the truth though, their minds become more fragile. Jeff gets in a brawl at work and loses his job, Kris hears a disturbing noise beneath her house and cannot rest, and though each scene may pass without strict chronological structure, the anxiety remains a driving force. Still, this anxiety is softened by their romance, and so when a sudden calm takes place in the film, it does not feel unjustified. Consequently, as the film draws to a close, barely a word is spoken. In silence, Jeff and Kris allow their buried memories to bring them back to the source of their trouble, unburdened by their inexplicable grief. The surrounding details of this pursuit may want for interpretation, but the core of Carruth’s story remains clear and powerfully stated. Beyond all Upstream Color‘s surreal eloquence, Kris and Jeff meet simply as souls made kindred by shared suffering. Together, they help each other dig their way out of darkness, becoming tender as the other grows wary, warm as the other is cold.
In truth, the film will not play well to a mainstream audience. It may be a narrative, but it is a narrative expressed in a fractured way, much like the enigmatic Tree of Life (2011). Even so, for those willing to put forth the effort, Upstream Color rewards a watchful eye. Shane Carruth controls the camera, capturing a muted beauty in every frame, forcing light to carve its way through each scene. Meanwhile, both lead actors exist within the film as if ghosts given corporeal form, seeming both present and absent all at once. Shane Carruth may have taken nine years to follow on his first feature Primer (2004), but Upstream Color merits the wait. The film embodies the power of a poem, but gives the audience a story to hold to as well. Sadly, piecing this story together may prove too demanding for most.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.