Friday, November 22, 2013

Quick Cut Review - "Upstream Color"

Directed by:  Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Frank Mosley and Shane Carruth
Rated: Unrated
Runtime: 1 hour 36 minutes  
Release Date: May 7, 2013

Shane Carruth's debut 2004 film Primer was a revelation. In a world filled with so many fantastical time travel films, Carruth's film was one of the first to take a real scientific approach with the premise of traveling through time. It's budgetary concerns and amatuer cast were easily over looked for the intellectual script that actually made you believe that someone could actually create a device to travel through time with. Well, if you could understand all the technical talk and not get lost along the way that is.

Now, nine years later, Carruth has returned with Upstream Color, a new mind bending film for us to try and wrap our heads around. That word..."try", that is most likely the reaction you will have when watching Upstream Color, a film consisting of many themes including, but not limited to, isolation, confusion, fear, loathing, love, rejection and companionship. However, unlike his previous effort, Upstream Color comes off as an overly pretentious and infuriatingly abstract bit of cinema that takes forever to get to its point and even when it gets there, it ultimately doesn't really matter anyway.

Things start off  extremely promising as we witness this strange man harvesting larvae from some peculiar looking plants. We don't know what he is doing and why he is doing it, but soon we see him accost a young woman (Amy Seimetz) and force her to swallow the larvae in a rather violent manner which leads to her being put in a very strong hypnotic state. Then we see the young woman drive the strange man to her home where he begins to give her instructions in a very cold and efficient manner, as if he had done this all before.

He instructs her to avoid the kitchen because the food is all poison, to avoid looking at his face because he has a skin condition that makes him radiate a glow like that of our sun and more importantly, he begins asking her financial questions. The next few days then consist of the stranger forcing her using the hypnosis to financially bankrupt herself and give him all her assets (he even takes her coin collection). Days pass and after she has a very bizarre incident with a pig farmer and brutally assaulting herself to remove the larvae (which has grown to an extraordinary length) from her body, she awakens from her hypnosis unaware of the events that happened over the course of the past week.

She eventually discovers that she is not only financially ruined, but her job has fired her and she has medical conditions that defy explanation. This opening section of the film was some of the most engrossing and compelling bits of cinema released this year. The concept is pure genius and the way in which it was all filmed and explained to us in a very indifferent matter was extremely intriguing. Where the film comes off the rails is everything that transpires after that opening sequence when we are taken one year into the future and see what has become of the young woman.

Being abstract is one thing, but outright confusing your audience and providing near zero context for anything may seem like a very artistic way to present your story, but here it is just upsetting to sit through. No other film in recent memory has enticed me to seek out its wiki page DURING the actual film to try and understand what is going on. Even though the explanations found in that wiki make sense, such as the man she meets (played by Carruth) being connected to the same events she was part of and the reason we keep seeing that damned pig farmer throughout the entire movie, it doesn't make the film any less infuriating.

Then when the finale comes along...well, let's just say you better have that wiki open or else you are going to just give up at that point because nothing there makes any real sense at all. How this film is receiving so much praise is beyond the knowledge of this reviewer. Rewarding a film simply for being so difficult to understand which results in conversations of what it is about doesn't mean it is great filmmaking, it just means you confused the hell out of everyone that saw it and no one knows what to make of it. Abstract filmmaking doesn't mean leave your audience out in the cold, but watching Upstream Color did just that.


The fact that the opening segment was so well done and so interesting makes it even more difficult to walk away from it because in the back of your head you keep hoping it will return to that brilliance once again. Instead you are treated to a giant middle finger from the filmmaker as he pats himself on the back for making sure you have no idea what is going on at any given moment. Congrats Mr. Carruth, you have succeeded, your film is indeed an enigma, but one that isn't worth the time or energy to figure out.


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