You'll occasionally come across one-hit wonder directors, the guys (and gals) who came out of the gate with a bang on their first film, only to follow it up with far more lackluster efforts. Sadly, some promising directors really only have one great film in them. After Shane Carruth's low budget time travel thriller "Primer" became a cult hit in 2004, he went off the radar for nearly a decade, and I honestly thought for a long time that he was gone for good. But now he's back with a second feature, "Upstream Color," that proves his first success was no fluke.
Like "Primer," "Upstream Color" is a science fiction story with a very plotty narrative, full of twists and turns and improbable things going on that significantly impact the lives of its characters. This time, however, the story is not told in the conventional way, where the concepts are all carefully explained to the audience, with lots of exposition to make sure that you understand what's going on. Instead, there is next to no exposition at all. I saw this movie right after I saw the new Malick film, "To the Wonder," and was surprised to discover that the storytelling style was so similar. "Upstream Color" is heavily reliant on visuals, and it's through precise editing and carefully chosen images that a fascinating narrative is constructed.
A woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is knocked out and abducted one night by an anonymous man (Thiago Martins, credited as "The Thief") and forced to ingest maggots that have a unique effect on living organisms. The maggots give Kris's captor the ability to control her, and use that power to empty her bank accounts and then condition her to perform endless, repetitive tasks on command. The maggots grow into worms, which are surgically removed from Kris. The next morning she wakes up, abandoned, without any memories of the abduction, to find her life in shambles. Some time later, after Kris has regained some footing, she meets a man named Jeff (Shane Carruth) and falls in love with him. And it's only as their relationship blooms that Kris discovers that the abduction was only the beginning of something much bigger and more sinister.
We never learn the names of the special parasitic worms, or the mysterious group that is studying them. We don't even know exactly how the worms are supposed to work, though we see their effect on Kris in great detail. The film refuses to give any straight answers, but many of those answers are right there in front of you, if you can figure out how to decode them. Some are fairly straightforward. Kris has a panic attack when someone else far away is in danger, and the two lines of action are intercut together to suggest that Kris is emotionally linked to the other character, though no one ever states the connection explicitly. Residue left on plants by the maggots is a bright blue color, and whenever that color appears, we know that they are present.
However, what to make of a long sequence where a man credited as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) is collecting various sounds? And what about the swimming pool sequences? And what about Jeff and Kris getting each other's childhood memories mixed up? And what was the significance of Kris's abductor forcing her to transcribe pages from Thoreau's "Walden" and making paper chains out of them? Was there any significance? After a single viewing, I know that there's a lot that I must have missed, and I really want to see the film again to see what else I can puzzle out.
However, even without the finer details in place, the film is a stunner. This isn't just another puzzle box movie. The central romance works, the mystery and thriller elements are solid, and the performances are tremendously engaging. Carruth wisely put Amy Seimetz at the center of the film, and makes her character a little abrasive and difficult. Seimetz does a fantastic job of expressing a gamut of emotional states, sometimes playing up the ambiguity of whether or not she's in control of her actions, without ever going over the top. Carruth is fine as Jeff, but Seimetz delivers a tour de force.
Of course, there's plenty to praise Shane Carruth for - he directed, produced, wrote, shot, edited, and composed the music and sound design for "Upstream Color." He's also self-distributing the movie, which is why you can already buy it now on DVD and Blu-Ray after it's only been in limited release for a month. I really hope that this film gets more attention, because it's one of the most unique pieces of science-fiction I've seen in ages, told in such a bold, interesting way.
I really hope Shane Carruth's next film doesn't take a decade to reach us, though if that's the amount of time it takes for him to make something as great as "Upstream Color," it'll be worth the wait.