Upstream Color is a movie about a cycle. A presence moves from plants to worms to people to pigs and back around again, binding all these things together in impossible ways. Under the influence of this presence, a woman (Amy Seimetz as Kris) is robbed for every dollar she has. While reassembling the remnants of her life, she meets a man (Shane Carruth as Jeff) who has suffered through a similar experience, and the two become entangled in this lifecycle and in each other. It’s a seemingly never-ending chain of creatures accepting existential burdens from the link before them, and wrestling for their claims to life from the link after.
Simple enough, though in true artsy film fashion, it’s rather difficult to pin down more precisely than that. Not that its artiness is any kind of handicap; it is, really, just another layer on top of a movie that could have gotten away by simply being lovely to watch.
And god, but this thing is ever beautiful. The soundscapes are impossibly tactile; they deserve the best headphone/speaker setup you can give them. Each shot is poetic in its own way; each cut elegant, never forced. Even in the story’s darkest moments and the most fragmentary sequences, a particular, graceful light shines through to hold the thing together. The film simply glows.
To be sure, there is a kind of darkness underneath all of this. But it’s not as if it’s lurking around, ready to crush everyone’s hopes and dreams—after all, a trauma is what the movie starts with. Maybe it’s inaccurate for me to say that it “simply glows”; more than anything, Upstream Color illuminates.
Maybe it’s just because there were nine years in-between, but it’s a big departure from Shane Carruth’s first movie, Primer. Anyone familiar with Primer is probably aware of how janky and graceless it is. Produced on a shoestring budget, basically every take the only take because there wasn’t time or money to shoot more than that—hell of impressive, given the complex time travel plot and dialogue—it looks jaundiced, feels apocalyptic.
Towards the end of Primer, in a moment that can only very loosely be described as darkly humorous, Carruth’s character—blood streaming out of his ears following a time travel trip—turns to his (not really) friend and asks, “Is this normal?” God only knows how many iterations of this petty, fruitless task they’ve put themselves through. Their bodies are failing; their emotional stability is in tatters: “Is this normal?”
Upstream Color feels like the answer to that question; it treads a lot of similar thematic ground as Primer, but comes from the opposite direction. Perhaps inevitably for a time-travel movie, Primer has its own cycle, wherein the characters tear themselves apart by endlessly reliving one (1) moment of their lives, trying to “fix” something but doing the complete opposite. And, of course, Upstream Color has the lifecycle of that presence and the status quo that it imposes in order to stay alive. We see that equilibrium through the eyes of The Sampler, who can peer into the lives of people caught up by the presence. Maybe they’re driving to work or eating lunch; another person might be with them. A few people are only a little alone; others, very much so. But always alone in some fashion. As wrong as each person clearly feels in their loneliness, though, they’re anything but abnormal; we’ve yet to see anyone who isn’t.
In the midst of all this, Kris and Jeff struggle to build their lives together—even as the cycle repeatedly jerks them back, tries to pry them apart into their individual elements. Suddenly their synchronicity is a point of friction; suddenly they’re grieving over a death but don’t know whose. The two fight harder against it, sacrificing more and more each time, until something somewhere has to break.
Re.: depression, altogether too clear in retrospect
Someone once explained the film to me in terms of mental illness.
In the opening act of the film, Kris is compelled to do things for reasons that she doesn’t understand; when she realizes what’s happened, she tries to remove that thing inside her by inflicting moderate-to-grievous physical harm on herself; when she finally arrives at The Sampler’s farm for help (drawn, again, for reasons that she can’t articulate), she tells him, simply, “It won’t come out.” But the presence is removed with The Sampler’s help; of course, it leaves scars. The marks across her thigh. The gouge in her ankle. But those kinds of scars are easily hidden; indeed, we only see them once or twice, and only briefly. That stuff scabs overs.
More telling is the phone call Kris makes—or tries to make, rather—as she returns from The Sampler to find her house and her life in shambles. Kris snatches her phone off the end table and rushes outside with it, already dialing for help. But she hesitates. What would she say? Could she say anything? The situation is unreal, absurd. Even to merely talk about it would lend it legitimacy—make it real. And if it’s real, if it could control her for so long, then that means the problem had power. Maybe it still does.
Something is wrong. And it isn’t even safe to think about.
The Sampler comes across another couple, Ben and Jillian, for whom alienation has become a kind of ritual. “I hope today is better,” Jill tells her husband, over and over again. “Those are words,” he answers, “they don’t mean anything.” For them, language can’t even express what the problem is, much less fix it; it drives them apart. Communication no longer simply legitimizes the problem; to communicate is the problem. To be disconnected from each other has become part of their routine. This is just what the cycle has decided is standard.
When we look at Ben and Jill, we might be seeing Kris and Jeff in a couple years. Silence is the norm. Alienation is the standard. Communication has become the problem. For Kris and Jeff, something will have to break if they keep going. It could be them.
It isn’t, though; it’s the loop that breaks, eventually. If Kris is going to end her own cycle of alienation and find healing and togetherness, then she needs language. If language is going to become the problem, then there needs to be a new way to communicate. Aptly, all dialogue disappears from the movie once it makes this turn; what follows is fifteen minutes of visual poetry as the characters create and learn to communicate in their new language, drawing ever closer to the closure that they’ve been seeking. With it, they're able to locate the people we'd spied on with The Sampler previously, and they succeed in bringing them together. Loneliness is no longer what’s expected of her or the others; she’s found peace again. Kris breaks the chain.
What’s left to think about is how she’s paying for it. One could easily see something flawed and incomplete about that peace. The price was too high, maybe, her actions too dire. The trauma can’t be undone, and she won’t won’t regain everything she lost. A cycle will eventually bring about something whole; what was once abnormal will eventually be restored to its normal, starting state. But Kris has removed herself from the loop that once held her, and with so much taken from her, maybe she’ll never be whole. When we see her peaceful, she might be nothing more than a starling, simply mimicking the songs of happier birds.
The thing about it, though: cycles are what they are—even a broken one. When one ends, another begins. “Everything resets,” says Jeff. And the thing about a broken loop: it doesn’t have to repeat the same way as before. “Normal” can mean anything. It’s allowed to start; it’s allowed to be better; it’s allowed to build itself up. It can be whole again.
Kris could be a starling. But she doesn’t have to be.
As far as movies of 2013 go, I feel like only Gravity came close, sound-wise. But NOT CLOSE ENOUGH. ↩
Not in any bad way, but if one is apt to metaphor, Upstream Color is a soaring bird and Primer is a tumbling brick. ↩
Exactly one. ↩
In Kris’s case, this is a very delicate way to describe it. ↩