(Shane Carruth, USA, 2013)
Nifty, but not the game changer that I had allowed myself to expect. There's a ton of stuff to admire about Upstream Color, from the concept all the way through the dazzling execution. Carruth is a meteoric talent, there's no doubt. Liking or not liking this movie will largely depend, or at least it did for me, on whether one is able to accept the odd, disjunctive way that Carruth plays in a few different genres. The most captivating moments, for me, came early in the film, where the mode seems to be sci-fi thriller. Amy Seimetz (she's wonderful) being drugged and swindled is both squirm-inducing and riveting to watch. The means by which the "thief" manages to get all her savings captivate not just as ingenious story ideas but also register on the level of the metaphysics that Carruth expands as the film progresses. The utter vulnerability of the characters is the key to their actions; although the world the film presents looks very much like our own, there is something not quite right about it. The camera records things in a lushly naturalistic way, but the editing and the sound design turn it into a fractured collage of anxiety and loneliness. Families, friends, society seem to exist outside the frame, if they exist at all.
As the film wanders from thriller to body horror to mystery to modern-ennui dream mode, the overall quality don't always stay consistent. Temperamentally, I'm less inclined to enjoy the velocity at which Carruth prefers to work; there's a restlessness to it that seems to belie a lack of confidence in some of the images and ideas. And I confess to not understanding, or at least only vaguely understanding, what some of those ideas are. Parts of the story are easy enough to get, but the film is committed to raising far more questions than it answers. This is all well and good when it comes to meaning, of course, but the plot itself begins to take on a Chinese-box style air of mystery, with each tentative link exposing more questions in need of answering.
Overall the film does impress and delight, but it also disappoints, if only because its ambition is so evident. Through all of the high-minded hinting about love, social alienation, and metaphysical connection, there is an unwillingess to let these ideas breathe. Carruth remains enamored of the more plotty, earth-bound tropes of noir and horror - all of which is fine, except he seems slightly uncomfortable with them, as if he felt the need to transcend their tawdriness. So he's stuck, in a sense, between heaven and earth. Between some rather awesome metaphysical flights of fancy and some equally exciting, if gritty and terrestrial, storytelling. Upstream Color is an opus. There's a world in there, even if it has trouble getting itself seen completely.