Kris (Amy Seimetz, "A Horrible Way to Die") is a successful career woman until the evening she's accosted outside a club and forced to ingest a white worm harvested from the roots of an orchid plant. She is now so susceptible to hypnotism she is stripped of her identity and, when she meets a man who claims he is able to help her, loses a critical component of her gender. Then Jeff (Shane Carruth), a man who has had a similar experience, tries to help her build her life back as they form a relationship and discover what causes "Upstream Color."
Almost ten years after his surprising Sundance win for his $7,000 "Primer," writer/director/composer/cinematographer/coeditor/star Shane Carruth returns with another puzzle piece featuring a pig-farm owning sound sampler (Andrew Sensenig, "The Last Exorcism Part II") who might be playing God and the transcendental philosophies of Henry David Thoreau's 'Walden.' The film will frustrate those who prefer linear storytelling, but for those who are willing to immerse themselves in Carruth's dreamlike, fractured tale there are provocative rewards. And baby pigs.
At first it might seem like Carruth has unleashed a number of ideas in twisting strands, allowing them to float upstream, but one story does emerge from his short bursts of visuals and sonic landscape. The man who forced that worm on Kris (Thiago Martins) uses his advantage to bilk her of her equity. When she's rid of the worms, she finds she's lost her job for her unexplained absence and can't believe the pictures a bank manager presents of her emptying her account. She tells Jeff that she's lucky to have her new job at a sign printing company, a sentiment later repeated by him when he tells her of his own career disaster. The two begin to take pleasure in nature, but Kris is still disturbed, insisting that Jeff find the source of sounds she's hearing beneath her house.
Meanwhile, the sampler, who 'cured' Kris with a bizarre surgical procedure involving one of his pigs, is disturbed by that pig's behavior. It becomes aggressive and when its piglets are born, he gathers them into a sack and drowns them in a steam. They release a substance and the white orchids growing within the roots of the tree where the sack has lodged begin to turn blue. Harvesters arrive and pot the unusual plants.
We see Kris retrieving rocks from an indoor pool and learn Jeff has placed them there. Whenever she surfaces, the two exchange line readings from 'Walden.' Then Jeff finds a recording from the Quinoa Valley Recording Studio which lead them back to the sampler and his pigs.
Carruth's film plays like a glass harp which has been smashed and reassembled with missing pieces but unbroken sound. We're forced to garner meaning from shards of experience with occasional bits of dialogue often delivered in whispers. There are some seeming non sequiturs, such as a married couple who appear briefly, the wife trying to regain her husband's trust. Some elements of the film even appear naive, such as the obviously fake yellow orchid spray Kris tries to grasp beneath the water. Those blue orchids are a recent invention, created by injecting dye into flower stalks which orchid growers such as myself consider a travesty, but does Carruth?. He has stated that his film is about the breaking down and rebuilding of personality, but there appears to be so much more going on here, with its characters' conventional, financially secure lives turning into an appreciation of more basic truths and a rejection of those that would attempt to alter them. "Upstream Color" is a unique film that should continue to disclose meaning upon repeated viewings.
Robin gives "Upstream Color" a B-.
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