What if your thoughts intersected with someone else’s—and your identity and sense of reality become completely warped? Similar to his debut film Primer, Shane Carruth heavily focuses on identity using slow, layered, unique and intricate scenes that convey one’s humanity in Upstream Color.
A pretty experimental film that makes your head scratch at times, this is the type of subgenre that truly captures a person’s subconscious in a nonlinear way. The premise can be described as “basic” in the sense that it’s simply about a parasite affecting people’s mind, but it’s more so metaphorical than plot-driven.
Kris, played by Amy Seimetz, is one day kidnapped and force-fed larvae by a man credited as The Thief. Having no memory of what happened to her, these parasites that are now inside Kris have the ability to manipulate her using mind control. A single worm is then transferred to a pig by a man called The Sampler, and eventually a parallel connection is formed between the pig and Kris. Carruth himself plays Jeff, a man who has a romantic interest in Kris and has had a similar experience to hers. Because of this, they’re able to communicate in ways regular humans can’t, with the use of telepathy in various timelines. In a set of dreamlike and ambiguous sequences, Kris and Jeff experience things that disorient them that can’t be explained through mere logic.
However, it’d be remiss to merely reduce the storyline to that alone, as its chronology of events can be quite elaborate to break down – and is also not the most important thing about this film. Instead of specific crucial and climactic scenes, it mainly focuses on highlighting each scene and making the most of it, like a poem where every syllable, rhyme and imagery matters and can be unpacked or interpreted. There is an elusive strangeness about this film that makes it vague and very much open to interpretation – it’s not one you can watch in the background while being absent-minded, especially since some scenes do feel a bit disjointed from each other. Delving into a complicated world of manipulation, trauma, identity, and consciousness, this sci-fi drama highlights the dynamics of people by utilizing technology. The ambient colors as well as sound design enhance the characters’ emotions and relationship progress, and the way some scenes are shot are part of the reason why the film successfully captures the crux of a dreamlike state full of contradicting emotions and thoughts. The nonlinear timelines as well as the parallel story regarding the pig all convene more cohesively in some way at the end, however it does leave the viewers with even more questions than answers.
It feels that it’s the rawest form of narrative you can get, and it’s not gonna be for everyone. I can’t say that it’s 100% for me either but I don’t regret experiencing it.