Sundance Journal: ‘Upstream Color’

‘Primer’ director Shane Carruth’s ‘Upstream Color’ is a puzzling array of stunning images, pieced together with limited dialogue, and collectively glued by one of the most immersive soundscapes I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to in a film. But if you asked me what the movie is about, I’d be at a loss.

It doesn’t help matters that Carruth himself had a difficult time nailing down the story’s endgame when he led a Q&A after the credits rolled. He seemed like he was still processing his own work, like it was a living, breathing, changing thing that he wasn’t sure about.

To try to describe the plot of ‘Upstream Color’ would be like trying to catch a marble in a blender – pointless and dangerous. Carruth has taken some inspiration from Terrence Malick’s playbook and has gone off in his own direction. It’s true that ‘Upstream Color’ is very ‘Tree of Life’-ish. Conventional linear storytelling has been thrown out the window. Instead, Carruth bombards us with images and sounds, for a wholly unique film experience.

It’s been a few days since I saw the movie and the plot is still rattling around in my head. I’m not sure if I’ve made sense of it yet. It has something to do with a new mind-control drug, a man that uses it to his advantage, his victims, and a living organism symbiosis that still confounds me.

Like ‘The Tree of Life’, Carruth’s film explores a story through whimsically filmed scenes. He finds beauty in the mundane. The editing pieces together what fragments of story we are privy to, but there’s never any direct exposition. It’s all assumption on the audience’s part, based on what you see and hear.

I feel like I need to watch the film a few more times to truly grasp it. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a handful of sand slowly slipping through your fingers. There’s something there, but as soon as you see it, it slowly slips away and changes shape.

People expecting a follow-up to ‘Primer’ that’s just as accessible will be disappointed. If you’ve seen the trailers, then you’re somewhat prepared. The way the trailers are constructed is the same way the movie is constructed. It’s beautiful and frightening at the same time. It’s one of my favorite movies of the festival, even though I couldn’t really tell you what it means.

On a side note, when/if this comes out on Blu-ray, it better have a demo-quality audio mix with as many channels as humanly possible. Done right, this film will sound better than any action movie could’ve ever dreamed. If, at some point, you get the chance to see it in a theater, do it! If only for the audio, you should see this movie.

Rating: ★★★★☆


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