Good films often teach you how to watch them. Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s follow-up to his 2004â€™s twisty sci-fi cult fave Primer, does this more than most. And while it’s not necessarily an intuitive lesson at first, the elliptical opening reel provides excellent preparation for what lies ahead. A man scrapes the leaves of a plant. Two boys pour water over a grub worm and drink what results. They perform eerie synchronized routines. The man, bearing a grub in a capsule, meets a woman at a nightclub. You wouldnâ€™t know how to explain it even if you were inclined.
Pay attention, cultivate your negative capability, and subtle horror begins to dawn. The man (Thiago Martins) is a thief running the sweetest con everâ€”total mind control. The woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), wakes up on the side of the road with no idea how her life was ruined. As she starts to put the pieces back together, she meets Jeff (Carruth), and suddenly Upstream Color is a love story. They are both damagedâ€”he hints at a drug problemâ€”but their woundedness seems to bring them closer together. And then she starts retelling his childhood memories as her own without realizing sheâ€™s doing it.
There is more, so much more. Thoreauâ€™s Walden plays a key role. And then thereâ€™s an older man (Andrew Sensenig) who divides his time between manipulating field recordings into unearthly sounds and tending a herd of pigs implanted with the wriggling parasites he pulls out of hapless strangers. How the wide-swinging orbit of this character (dubbed â€śThe Samplerâ€ť in the credits) intersects with the others’ is one of the areas where the complex tissue of connections holding Upstream Color together stretches thinnest.
After Primer, Carruth could have written his own ticket with a studio. Instead he spent private money to make a movie he wanted to make, his wayâ€”in addition to writing, directing, producing, shooting, editing, starring, and writing and performing the score, heâ€™s distributing Upstream Color as well. And the result is polished, smart, and entertaining specifically because, unlike most movies, it pushes you to make connections yourself: some assembly required.
In a few of the handful of interviews Carruth has given about the film, he has stated that for him, itâ€™s about identity and the loss of identity and how one copes with that. What the film gets at most for this viewer is connectivity, and the relations between man, woman, pig, worm, water, and earthâ€”the awesome and terrible interrelation of the life cycle and the daily incorporation and casting out of the very atoms we all share in common. Whatever you get out of it, if you make it through once, youâ€™re probably going to want to watch it again.
Through Friday, May 17, at the Charles Theatre. Also available on DVD.