First and foremost, you should go listen to Shane Carruth on KCRW’s The Treatment podcast, because that discussion is way better than anything you’re going to read here.
With that out of the way, I’ll start by saying that I loved this film. I do tend to love moody films, even when they sacrifice things like narrative and character accessibility, so that’s no big surprise. What I think elevates Upstream Color from just a mood piece, though, is that those things aren’t sacrificed for the sake of mood (as I think was the case somewhat in Drive for example). Shane Carruth has spent a great deal of effort crafting something beautiful that had a really, really challenging narrative approach, a complex emotional path for the characters, and imbued it with visual and audio elements that connect the audience in an emotional way with what’s going on. That’s a hellofa difficult balance to achieve, and he deserves a lot of praise for taking the time to pull it of spectacularly well.
So what the hell is going on? That’s the question, isn’t it. I think it would be easy to be dismissive about how the narrative was built in Upstream Color, the potential to call it unnecessarily difficult to access or pretentiously obscured. In the podcast above, Carruth speaks a lot about his ideas about narrative, and in particular he is quick to emphasize that the intent wasn’t to be opaque for its own sake, and I think this sums up his intent:
In that, I think it’s safe to say that he has been very successful. I’m still trying to parse out what all the elements add up to, what truth(s) lie his story for me. There’s nothing more compelling to me than a complex allegory, and that is what this film feels like to me. Carruth said as much in the interview with Elvis, describing it as an exploration of what it is to lose everything, including and especially one’s identity.
That, I think, is what makes this film so powerful. The film depicts the journey of the main character, Kris, starting with a stable, structured life and then watching her as she loses everything. The impulse for us would be to look at the why of her situation…why would that mysterious man do such a thing? Is it greed? Sadism? What did Kris do to deserve such a thing? Or the impulse might be to have the story be a search for justice, to make sure this never happens to anyone ever again.
Instead, we see the internal struggle that is the result of having the rug of the world pulled out from under Kris. She’s lost her stuff, lost her identity, lost friends, all this is true. What’s more, though, is that she’s coming to terms with the fact that the things we see as bedrock…identity, the reliability of our senses, bad things only happen to bad people, love is a linear process that occurs when your shit’s together…are completely illusory.
I think there are things in this movie that I will be unpacking for years. What the hell is the deal with the pigs? The pig farmer? Is he God? Why is sound so important? That’s what I love about this, though, the fact that I don’t know even a tenth of what there is to know about this story.
On another note, I love that he made this film so outside of the film industry structure. I know that must have been incredibly hard, but it’s really worth it. The types of risks and experiments that Carruth takes here, I believe, can only occur outside of that structure, and I give him huge kudos for taking this on in the way that he did.