Masterfully Rendered Deviation: 'Upstream Color' Review
A film that offers surprising narrative depth beneath its gorgeously abstract visuals, Upstream Color is arthouse done right. Now, whether or not you’re a fan of arthouse is another matter entirely – and yet it’s what matters most when it comes to this film.
To call it a simple love story would be a disservice, but to explain the plot in a more complex way would require significantly more time. Beginning with the film’s first lead, Kris (Amy Seimetz), Upstream Color sets a gruesome stage for the rest of the film to walk on. Robbed and drugged on an otherwise ordinary night, Kris’ traumatizing yet ephemeral encounter with violence is extended when she discovers the presence of microscopic organisms in her body that leave her without a fixed sense of identity. It’s all quite bleak and melancholy until Kris meets Jeff, the film’s secondary lead who is played by none other than director Shane Carruth. This is no ordinary “together we can overcome” kindred spirit type relationship, however. Like Kris, Jeff also underwent the same chilling procedure that’s left him befuddled, to say the least. Together, in their constant state of confused purpose, the two try and navigate the ever-shifting life impressed upon them.
Once you’ve accepted the somewhat distracting pseudo-science elements of the film, it becomes quite the experience to digest. Carruth, no stranger to cinematic experimentation, guides the viewer softly into the vague and incomprehensible world of the film through unique imagery and apparently meaningless symbolism. The film is, if anything, a testament to Carruth’s technical mastery; every shot, no matter how mundane or perplexing, indicates a level of cinematographic care that’s become more and more sparse in the CGI-driven Hollywood of today.
Even more impressive is what Carruth is capable of conveying with his enticing abstraction. The most obvious message being that the film’s unique, and sometimes dreamy aesthetic serves as a technical parallel to the struggle of the film’s two talented leads. In their constant state of anxious uncertainty, they try to ascribe meaning to anything real, anything more stationary in nature than themselves. As they live a life of petrifying and perpetual emotional change, the two lovers try to grasp desperately onto anything that can return that sense of steadiness they’ve lost – including each other.
Both Carruth and Seimetz are more than up to the challenge of depicting the emotional teetering of Jeff and Kris. Seimetz’s performance, in particular, is hauntingly tragic as she emotes the wide variety of emotions that Kris experiences throughout the film as a result of her condition with a compelling sincerity that leaves no doubts as to the degree to which Kris suffers or to the question of Seimtez’s talents. Carruth, on the other hand, is quite the poly-talented personality; in addition to starring and directing the film, he also wrote, scored, edited, and produced it. His performance itself is evocative and deeply personal but it does seem that at least part of its luster comes from how well paired it is with Seimetz’s.
Told in a wildly experimental fashion and without any training wheels, Upstream Color is quite the trip for arthouse newbies but, for those seeking something totally out of the norm, thought-provoking, and subtly satisfying, it’s completely worth the watch. My only tip is this: try not to fight the unconventional storytelling or impose your own idea of how a film should be made onto this one. Upstream Color, like many other cinematic experiments, is a wholly unique experience whose significance and genius comes from its complete disregard for “the way things are usually done.” It’s about what you, yourself, with all your unique experiences and ideas, can see in the film that decides what the film will appear to say to you.