How many times can a man hack down the same tree in his backyard? UPSTREAM COLOUR is the much-anticipated second feature from Shane Carruth, the director of cult hit PRIMER (2004) – so the answer could be anything.
The man is Jeff (Carruth) and the backyard is the one he shares with his wife Kris (Amy Seimetz, YOU’RE NEXT). We see the same action from different angles, with varying amounts of the tree remaining. Is it the same tree? Is it a parallel timeline? Is it a daydream? For those unfamiliar with Carruth’s style, things are going to get a bit weird.
UPSTREAM COLOUR begins with Kris. In a car park at the back of a bar, she is implanted with a grub that feeds on a mysterious blue powder found on the petals of orchids. It seems to give a drug dealer some kind of hypnotic power over Kris, and she is kept catatonic whilst the mysterious man steals her money.
The grub grows into a worm, and things take a turn for the even weirder with the help of a sound engineer with a bass amp, his herd of pigs and some interspecies transplant surgery.
After losing her memory, her job and her home, Kris is starting her life over when she meets Jeff, who has also lost it all. The two begin a tentative relationship which begins to, sort of, reveal why they are how they are.
What follows is a stunningly shot romantic sci-fi thriller of deliberate obscurity with seemingly boundless interpretations.
As we would expect from Carruth, we’re given zero exposition, so any conclusions we come to in some way reflect upon ourselves. How much is real, how much is hallucination, how much is metaphor? What’s the deal with the pigs?
Themes woven together include drug use, trauma, recovery, depression, dependency and codependency in relationships, the unreliable nature of memory, the importance of sounds, how easy it is to manipulate ‘truth’, the responsibility and ethics of scientific research, and coping mechanisms – it’s up to the audience to choose what they take from it.
The central relationship between Kris and Jeff has a lot to unpack, and despite having little or no emotional connection to either of them, I found them fascinating; I found myself scrutinising every word and every gesture, trying to figure them out. Are there multiple timelines? How much is Jeff indulging Kris in her neuroses? Do they share the same realities? What’s their respective deal with their corresponding pigs? Which came first, the human relationship or the pig relationship? And why!?
Even if you’re not 100% (or even 70%) sure what’s happening in narrative terms, UPSTREAM COLOUR is beautiful to look at. Carruth’s shots are metered and deliberate. Swirling ice in a water jug, fingers running against a pebbledash wall, sunlight and lens flare, close-ups of adorable piglets and their huge liquid eyes. The sound is also very well designed and atmospheric, and is important narratively and experientially. At times the film is akin to a very long music video.
For me to try to explain UPSTREAM COLOUR would be impossible and pointless. It’s complex, baffling, oblique and beautiful. Having seen the film twice, I still want to watch it again. Any film that makes me question whether memories are sexually transmitted diseases has got to be worth catching.