'Upstream Color': Ambitious and glorious sci-fi horror
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Upstream Color," the second feature film by writer-director-performer Shane Carruth, is a tour-de-force of a science fiction/horror film, conceived and executed with rare sensitivity and intelligence. It's full of genuinely creepy and disturbing moments and trucks in some genuinely creepy and disturbing ideas and concepts. For most movies nowadays, these qualities would be more than enough to qualify as something special, and something especially ambitious as well. But "Upstream Color" has more, and that's a big part of what makes it glorious, but also a big part of what makes it challenging for what we'll refer to here as the "mainstream market."
The movie begins with a scene of a man tending some potted plants that seem to have gone wrong. He examines the leaves from one, finding a blue powder coming off them. He dumps the soil and extracts some maggots from that soil. OK, yuck. But soon the man is following a young woman into a rainy parking lot, accosting her and compelling her to ingest, yes, what could be that maggot, through a kind of oxygen mask. And after that the man is in that woman's house with her, and he's got her under his mental control. Some poetic-sounding lines from an unspecified text are uttered, but that doesn't seem, as salient as the man with the plants is able to extort tens of thousands of dollars from the woman he's accosted.
So far, so ... straightforward. No, you wouldn't say that. But intriguing? Sure, you'd say that. Or I'd hope so. But Carruth is not content to take what he's up to and draw it within the lines of a conventional linear structure. On a commuter train, the woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), meets a man, Jeff (Carruth). She's traumatized from a recent experience, but he's still interested in her. Eventually they end up "together." But the scenes, along with other seemingly unconnected ones (a man with recording equipment wandering around streams with a field microphone, then returning to a farm where he raises interestingly dappled pigs), start becoming unstuck in time.
Kris and Jeff's relationship is depicted, seemingly willy-nilly, in various stages of development and disintegration. While they're never quite at ease, at one extreme point they gather impromptu survival kits and hide in the bathtub of their house. Kris swims at an indoor pool, from the floor of which she retrieves unexplained stones. The poetic text is revealed to be a passage from Thoreau's "Walden." Viewers who have been paying attention recognize the guy with the recording equipment as the person who performed an unusual piece of surgery on Kris after she was victimized. A litter of newborn pigs is placed in a bag and put in a stream, and the orchids growing upstream subsequently change color. And more, and more. All of these scenes are beautifully calibrated and executed, and so compelling to watch that a part of you might well resist the urge to try and put them together in the "right" order, and once you are out and going over the movie mentally, despite the very satisfying way the movie ends up in spite of its fragmentation, you might find yourself wondering if there is in fact a "right" order and if it matters.
"Upstream Color" is entirely remarkable, in a way an uncanny amalgam of the sensibility of David Cronenberg and the editing innovations of Alain Resnais and Richard Lester, and in another way an entirely singular feat of cinematic engineering. It's a movie about, among other things, DNA, and it very dearly wants to get into yours. Like I said, it's unusually ambitious.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.