Sometimes originality means you have to fasten your seatbelt. Shane Carruth’s second feature after his startling indie debut ‘Primer’ in 2004 may well be the most visually imaginative American film since David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’. But its stream of hallucinatory imagery does involve a certain WTF factor.
There are these plants, you see, whose powdery blue coating is eaten by worms, which a drug dealer feeds (still alive!) to a young woman called Kris (Amy Steinmetz). She then obsessively copies out pages from Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’, the nineteenth-century writer’s book about living alone in the woods, and signs over all her goods to said dealer. The little wrigglers, however, are extracted from her and fed to pigs by the enigmatic mastermind behind everything, dubbed The Sampler because he synthesises natural sounds into weird electronic music. Kris, though, remembers nothing of her ordeal until she meets Jeff (Carruth), a nervy finance exec with secrets of his own.
It’s fair to say that we’re not in Kansas anymore. And Carruth isn’t about to wheel in some sober authority figure to explain the plot. Instead, there’s the fun and intrigue of figuring everything out as we go along. Elements of Cronenbergian body-horror, an anxious love-story and an evil-genius thriller offer some guidance until the workings of the bizarre organic process at the heart of the story fall into place.
Watching ‘Upstream Colour’ is not dissimilar to getting your head round the time-travel conceit in Carruth’s ‘Primer’. But he’s upped his game considerably since then, largely ditching geekspeak dialogue in favour of picture-driven associative editing which delivers both tingly unease and swoony lyricism.
And what does it all mean? Well, it could be a metaphor for capitalism and the discontent it causes us. Or perhaps it explores the absurdity of individualism within the broader picture of our planet. In a way, though, the experience of ‘Upstream Colour’ is less about nailing the ideas than giving yourself over to the film’s uniquely affecting rapture.
If you’ve ever sat at your desk wondering whether there’s more to life, or been kept awake by an insidious hum in the darkness, this will speak to your soul – even as its enveloping, disturbing, uplifting story sends your mind reeling with giddy possibilities.