Judge Jason Panella used to be more of a downstream kinda guy. Not any more!
Kris: "It's not my fault when it goes wrong." Jeff: "Yes it is."
If you don't mind unorthodox storytelling, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color might be the best—or most unique—film you'll see in 2013.
Facts of the Case
Kris (Amy Seimetz, The Killing) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, Primer) are inexplicably drawn to each other after both experience life-altering events involving a bizarre parasite and the various people in the creature's life cycle…I think?
Shane Carruth's debut, 2004's Primer, was an arthouse success story. It cost Carruth $7,000 and several years to make the film almost entirely on his own, but the rewards more than made up for it—Primer gained the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and a cult following. It also gave Carruth some big-name supporters, like Rian Johnson (Looper) and Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight).
Upstream Color, Carruth's sophomore film, trades Primer's impossibly dense plot for a foggy narrative that's more felt than told. And boy, does it work. Upstream Color is bewildering, sure, but it's also a beautiful film experience.
Carruth doesn't provide much in the way of context or background for scenes, though; he gives just enough information to let viewers come to their own conclusions. The filmmaker tends to zero in on the brief moments in the characters' lives; in a way, Carruth shows the emotional impact of the story's events more often than the events themselves. Is there a coherent story here? Yes, and it's not too hard to suss out after several viewings. Field recordings, orchids, and a pig farm all play into the story, and the film teases out some big questions about love, identity and the cycles and patterns that establish and, sometimes, pervert the world.
The film's sound and visuals are as important—maybe even more important—than its faint sketch of a plot. Carruth uses visual and audial motifs to establish emotions cues at points in the movie, almost like signposts. The film is filled with tightly edited, shallow depth of field shots; sometimes Carruth uses this aesthetic to evoke feelings of warmth, and sometimes he uses it to conjure uneasiness and disorientation. No matter what's actually happening on screen, Upstream Color looks and sounds incredible.
Like for Primer, Carruth is essentially a one-man band here—in addition to directing, writing, and acting in the movie, he also served as cinematographer, composer, editor, and producer. He even bypassed traditional distribution methods by releasing the film himself, and it pays off; Carruth's film is exactly the way he wants it to be with no outside influence at all. It's such an impressive package with this in mind, too. The tri-fold package is gorgeous, and the Blu-ray treatment is equally so. Both DTS-HD Master Audio tracks—5.1 surround and 2.0—are incredible, and the clarity of the 2.35:1 (1080p) transfer is one of the best I've ever seen. There's little in the way of extras, though: just a couple of trailers and a sleek DVD copy of the movie. The film itself more than makes up for this.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A lot of people are going to hate Upstream Color. The narrative is fragmented and doesn't answer many of the questions raised during the course of the film. Even if you're able to piece together the film's story on a second viewing, why would you watch it again if you hated it the first time? This will be the case for lots of people who actually like art house cinema.
There's not going to be much middle ground for Upstream Color; people are either going to love it or hate it. Count me with the "loved it" crowd. I was floored. The fact that Carruth made and released it entirely outside of the Hollywood system makes it even more impressive.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
• DVD Copy
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