Upstream Colour

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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.

Release details

Rated: 12A
Release date: Friday August 30 2013
Duration: 96 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Shane Carruth
Screenwriter: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth
Amy Seimetz
Andrew Sensenig
Thiago Martins

Average User Rating

2.9 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:3
  • 4 star:1
  • 3 star:1
  • 2 star:0
  • 1 star:4
LiveReviews|9
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Jen H

This really is one of those films you either connect with or don't - I saw it at Sundance and was completely mesmerised (with a friend who hated it) and then again at another preview with my sister, who also loved it.

It took me a couple of viewings to work out that it's more akin to a survivorship narrative than anything else (the most basic plot goes from Kris being attacked, through all the traumatic after-effects and the love story in the middle, to Kris taking revenge on someone vaguely responsible for her attack, and finally finding peace. The fact that that peace literally involves piglets is... neither here nor there).  The narrative is certainly there, it's just that it's communicated via imagery and sound design as well as dialogue so you have to experience it.  It really works for some people, it doesn't for others.


What is interesting is that Under The Skin is in many ways a mirror image of this film, using very similar techniques - but from the 'alien' perspective rather than the victim. And I freaking hated that one as much as some people hate Upstream.

MAREK

Could not but agree with EAV, 'emperor's new clothes'. The film may have been visually dazzling, but the plot was near to impenetrable. I would not recommend it. The kind of film where there are only 2 reactions - 'genius-must see' or 'rubbish'.

J Loy

Trevor Johnson has got to be the worst reviewer of films I have ever read. Seriously! "A metaphor for capitalism and the discontent it causes?" What pompous crap! I found this film stiflingly boring but compared to the utter garbage that this 'critic' churns out, then maybe it is a masterpiece after all. Please give up, Trevor.

Chatts

I've never been so mesmerized by a film since Aronofsky's 'The Fountain'. It's not for everyone, in the same way as books or fast food aren't for everyone but some reviewers here seem to have taken it personally that a film was made that they didn't get. Don't worry Joe Gillis, Transformers 4 will be out soon. Upstream Colour is my film of the year.

Chatts

I've never been so mesmerized by a film since Aronofsky's 'The Fountain'. It's not for everyone, in the same way as books or fast food aren't for everyone but some reviewers here seem to have taken it personally that a film was made that they didn't get. Don't worry Joe Gillis, Transformers 4 will be out soon. Upstream Colour is my film of the year.

I. W.

Brilliant film. Not for those who want mainstream linear narratives and visual effects. A mesmerizing meditation on addiction, pain and loneliness which creates lots of disjunctions, uneasiness and at times horror - just like the real thing. See it. Keep an open mind.

EAV

Unfortunately all I could think throughout the film was : "emperor's new clothes". The film never managed to engage me or intrigue me.

Tom

I went to see this at the 02 Sundance thing. After there was a Q&A Carruth, the only question I wanted to ask was 'can I have my £15 and 91 minutes back?' Leaving the cinema I felt angry, it was the most pretentious, least enjoyable film I've ever seen. To me, the film was so self-involved it bordered on the insulting. How a reviewer can give it five stars has left me utterly dumbfounded, I can only assume Trevor Johnston is playing a cruel practical joke on his readers.

Joe Gillis

I went to see this film because most film reviews I read said it was THE five star movie to see. It wasn't. Instead of Time Out critic Trevor Johnson's "enveloping, disturbing, uplifting story" I was bored witless and would have walked out after 20mins if I hadn't paid over £8 to see it. What the critics seem to miss is the fact that the director is so all over his precious little project (he wrote, it, acted in it, edited it, did the music, etc) that it comes over as a deeply indulgent camcorder epic full of bits and pieces of ideas that flash by and look colourful but can't be resolved because collectively they don't mean anything to anyone except the director. Don't be fooled - Upstream Colour should be avoided like the plague. Ditto so-called film critics who I felt were too up their own backsides to separate the wood from the trees. And when was the last time any of them paid to see a movie just like the rest of us?