When Shane Carruth came out of nowhere—nowhere being the suburbs of Dallas, Texas—to win the 2004 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with his exceptionally frugal brainteaser Primer, the story of its making got ahead of its significant accomplishment. And it was a great story: In the face of a still-nascent digital revolution, well before the technology caught up with the impulse to shoot on video, Carruth rejected the cheaper format and shot Primer on 16mm for $7,000, a near-impossible feat of planning and resourcefulness. Never mind that the time-traveling thriller, taken on its own merits, represented one of the few recent examples of serious, idea-driven science fiction to surface in a sea of pricey space adventures. This was El Mariachi redux, another Texan doing a lot with a little—and Carruth’s subsequent struggles to get another film off the ground seemed to resign him to outsider-artist anomaly.
Now that Carruth has returned nine years later with Upstream Color, an intensely beautiful and enigmatic puzzle picture, it’s clear that Primer wasn’t some bolt from the blue, but the embryonic beginnings of a major filmmaker. Working with a larger budget—though very little all the same—Carruth has the means to expand another dense, sophisticated conceit into quasi-experimental marvel, as visually arresting as Primer was limited by necessity. The two films share in common an absolute faith in audiences to follow their curlicues of logic—Carruth even ends scenes a few seconds before another director would, trusting viewers to get the idea—and an eerie, destabilizing mood, as reality itself gets radically reconfigured.
To describe the plot of Upstream Color is an exercise in comical futility, but here goes: Amy Seimetz stars as an effects artist who’s abducted and implanted with a bioengineered grub that holds her in a hypnotic trance. By the time she recovers—via some sort of pig-related resuscitation process engineered by Andrew Sensenig (see: comical futility)—Seimetz has no memory of what happened, but she’s mysteriously drawn to a young, disgraced trader (Carruth) who seems to have gone through a similar experience. The two share an intimate relationship, spiked by mutual fear and paranoia, and their memories and identities start to muddy and converge inexplicably. (Also: Something something orchids; something something Walden; something something triggering sound effects.)
As with Primer, it’s not important—or even possible—to grasp everything that happens in Upstream Color on first viewing, though in both cases, Carruth clearly has them both fully worked out. It’s a movie that calls on a more intuitive response from the audience—in that sense, it owes a debt to fellow Texan Terrence Malick—and it’s best just to feel the story as it unfolds, to recognize the depth of Seimetz and Carruth’s connection without needing to have it explained. Imagine an entire romantic subplot cut together with the elliptical cool of the hotel scene in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight, and that’s reasonably close to how it plays out, minus the sci-fi contortions.
Given the lengths that Carruth went to shoot his debut feature on celluloid—the entire budget was burned through the camera, one take at a time—it’s a pleasing irony that Upstream Color is one of the greatest realizations of the digital dream, which was supposed to allow filmmakers to express a full, idiosyncratic vision from outside the system. To the extent that the film could be talked about as a collaboration, it’s Carruth the autodidact collaborating with himself as producer, writer, director, editor, cinematographer, composer, and distributor. It might be fair to argue that the resonances of Upstream Color are too obscure and internal—many viewers have and will be baffled by it—but it’s the type of art that inspires curiosity and obsession, like some beautiful object whose meaning remains tantalizingly out of reach.