Thursday, June 13, 2013

Upstream Color

Grade: 98/A

When he first burst onto the scene with Primer in 2004, Shane Carruth established himself as one of the most unique filmmakers of his generation. Having served as the writer, director, producer, star, composer, and editor, among other roles, Carruth could virtually take full credit for Primer’s offbeat rhythms, remarkable intelligence, and for how spectacular the film looked for so little money ($7,000!). The fact that it was shot on film was a particular boon in a time where so many low-budget films were shot on cruddy video. Carruth has gone digital on Upstream Color, his first film in nine years, everything that made his debut so spectacular remains. With Upstream Color, Carruth has taken the abstractions and intelligence of his debut and applied it to a more personal and emotional work. The result? One of the most wholly original films in recent memory.

Upstream Color’s plot is borderline impossible to describe, but let me give it a shot: Kris (Amy Seimetz) is forced to consume a parasite, which allows a thief to control her behavior and steal her money. She has a breakdown and loses her job. She then meets Jeff (Carruth), a former stockbroker guilty of embezzlement…which was caused because of a parasite within him. The two fall for each other, but their bizarre connection to the parasites, not to mention a man known as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) controlling their behavior, causes their identities to blend and break down.

All together: what? Yeah, this is clearly the guy who made Primer, a time-travel film so complicated that it takes several viewings (and likely the aid of a diagram) just to get some idea of what’s going on. And yet it all makes sense in the hands of an artist as assured as Carruth. Steven Soderbergh recently described him as “the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron”, which makes perfect sense. He has Cameron’s strong sense of how technology works and Lynch’s gifts for abstracted storytelling, and he blends the two perfectly together into a rhythm and visual sense all his own.

Upstream Color looks beautiful, often using shallow focus to draw attention to Seimetz and Carruth while leaving the rest of the world a blur around them. It’s a smart visual choice on both an aesthetic level and a thematic one, considering how disconnected the characters are from the rest of the world. The editing (by Carruth and David Lowery), meanwhile, is perhaps the most essential use of editing in a film in years. The abstract rhythms- which play more like a poem or a symphonic movement in the last third than a story- depend on how Carruth connects it all. What’s remarkable here is that while it’s difficult to piece together most of what’s happening, in context, it all makes some sort of bizarre sense. Even if we don’t know what’s going on, it’s clear that Carruth does, and that he trusts the viewer to find what makes it all cohere.

But what makes Upstream Color an even greater achievement than Primer is how it achieves the one element the earlier film lacked- a strong emotional core. Where the friendship between the time-travelers in Primer felt secondary compared to the ethical dilemma, the Seimetz/Carruth relationship gives this strange, unclassifiable bit of science-fiction a beating heart. The two are confident enough actors when dealing with Carruth’s sometimes-heady, sometimes-functional dialogue, but they’re even better in the wordless bits, establishing an emotional connection via gestures, looks, and just seeming lost and overwhelmed by life. It’s one of the most deeply-felt relationships in recent movie history, a neat trick considering how much of the film is image-based rather than dialogue-based. It’s Before Sunrise by way of Terrence Malick. If a better film comes out this year, it’ll be one of the best movies ever made.

This film is now streaming on Netflix Instant. For the love of god, go watch it.

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