Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color isn’t a movie you can fully understand the first time through. Or the second. Or, and I speak from experience, the third. In interviews, Carruth is happy—perhaps too happy—to explain aspects of the film, like why Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drawn to Jeff (Carruth) after a con artist (credited as The Thief) puts her in a suggestible state by infecting her with a parasitic worm. And how the movie’s strange cycle unwittingly links The Thief with The Sampler (a scientist who also records New Age music incorporating field recordings of the natural world) and the Orchid Mother and Daughter, a barely glimpsed pair whose exotic plants nourish The Sampler’s worms. And the existence of psychic bonds between the pigs The Sampler raises on his remote farm and The Thief’s victims, and so on. But there’s a point at which explaining the film, matching each effect to its cause and converting its mysteries into certainties, diminishes and even neuters it. Just because a movie can be “solved” doesn’t mean it needs to be.
Trace it back to The Usual Suspects or Memento, but in the past two decades, we’ve been overrun with puzzle-box movies, full of switchbacks and double-crosses, fake-outs and revelations. But in too many cases, the picture that emerges once the jigsaw is solved isn’t worth a second look. Is it worth rewatching Identity, or The Village, or Secret Window, or Oblivion once they’ve given up their final twist? Perhaps one of the reasons contemporary culture has become so spoiler-averse is that the movies in question have little to offer beyond the cheap thrill of a bait and switch. (Put another way: Can you spoil Hamlet?) At best, a puzzle-box movie’s second viewing allows viewers to judge whether it’s playing fair, or to admire the ways it cheats.
At the end of the puzzle-box road lies the territory inhabited by the would-be cryptologists of Room 237, who have become convinced that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining holds messages—about the genocide of the American Indian, about the Holocaust, about the faking of the moon landing—that only they have managed to decode. It’s axiomatic to them that Stanley Kubrick was the most assiduous and detail-oriented of auteurs, and therefore everything in the movie must be there for a reason. The cans of Calumet baking soda are present in the Overlook hotel’s larder not because Kubrick liked their graphic simplicity and bright red color, but to reference the peace pipe smoked at the signing of a treaty. A sticker of one of the Seven Dwarves disappears from Danny’s bedroom door not as a result of a garden-variety continuity error—the kind to which even quasi-omniscient geniuses sometimes fall prey—but to signify that he is no longer “a Dope.”
In an essay for Indiewire’s Press Play blog, Robert Greene polled several writers (including me) on the idea that Room 237 is a funhouse reflection of film critics, and that the movie represents “an act of revenge from the filmmaker upon the critics.” But being a critic isn’t just about knowing how to look for patterns. It’s about knowing when to stop, and being able to distinguish the signal from the noise. It’s true that Bill Blakemore, the veteran ABC News correspondent who believes that The Shining is Kubrick’s comment on American imperialism, is looking beneath the surface of the film, as a critic might. But in so doing, he loses sight of that surface altogether. Almost none of Room 237’s subjects discuss the way Kubrick employs the tools of filmmaking, the way he frames a shot or the performances he coaxes from his actors, his use of music or editing. They treat Kubrick less like an artist than as a distant God leaving signs for mere humans to follow. While zeroing in on Jack Nicholson’s character employing a German typewriter as a purported reference to the mechanized extermination of the Holocaust, history professor Geoffrey Cocks overlooks the fact that the typewriter was Kubrick’s own—a detail that could more plausibly be parsed as a different kind of confession altogether. Perhaps they are functioning as film critics, but if so, not as very good ones.
In a sense, Upstream Color is, as much as Room 237, a movie about recognizing patterns. Kris awakes from her hypnotic state with no apparent memory of what happened to her, and has to piece her life together from incidental clues. She acts on subconscious impulses, retrieving rubble from a swimming pool as if the pieces could be made back into a cohesive whole. The audience is engaged in a similar process, but Carruth deliberately withholds some of the pieces. How did The Sampler and The Thief discover their places in the cycle? How does a process that involves the release of substances from decaying pig carcasses cycle rapidly enough to allow The Thief to claim his dozens of victims? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
There’s no question that Carruth sweats the details, as Primer’s devilishly snarled timelines prove. Even Kris and the anonymous woman crocheting at different points in the film reflects a preoccupation with interconnected loops. (It’s like a fractal: Zoom in or zoom out, the same design remains.) But with Upstream Color, Carruth’s working on an intuitive plane as well. His characters are linked not just by plot but by (literally) shared experience, in a way none of them will ever fully understand—and neither, entirely, will we. Upstream Color can’t be “solved,” and it’s a better movie for it.
Upstream Color is available today on-demand and on DVD/Blu-ray. Room 237 is available on demand and in theaters.