The iconoclastic writer-director-actor Shane Carruth seems determined to do it his way, starting with his stunning, complex, and provocative debut in 2004, Primer. It was a mega-low-budget science-fiction film about four suburban computer engineers and entrepreneurs who inadvertently build an extraordinary device in their garage lab.
Carruth received serious attention and praise for Primer, even if it wasn’t a box-office smash. I expected he would use the critical respect to latch on to a high-profile studio project or stay indie with bigger names and budgets while his fire burned hot. Instead, he disappeared for almost a decade. Or so it seemed. In fact, he was working on a film called “A Topiary” that would have cost quite a lot more to make than Primer. But even Carruth fans such as directors Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher couldn’t get “A Topiary” financed and released by a legit movie studio. So eventually, Carruth put the idea on hold and made Upstream Color.
In ways, Upstream Color is even more enigmatic, unconventional, and nonlinear than Primer. At its heart, it’s a love story about a man and woman, played by Carruth and actress Amy Seimetz, who have both been damaged by a terrifying set of circumstances. The phrase “out-of-body” experience gains new meaning in Upstream Color, which also deals with crime, psychotropic drugs, animal husbandry, and questions of predestination. I can only say so much about it without ruining the surprising nature of what’s on screen; it won’t be to everyone’s taste. That said, it’s remarkable, puzzling, disturbing, and actually quite beautiful to look at.
With its shifting timeline, impressionistic microcosmic and macrocosmic visions, and enigmatic characters, it begs for highly subjective interpretation. To get the most out of Upstream Color, you won’t be able to float through it, you’ll have to swim. But it is a strange and rewarding journey, and I look forward to what’s next from Shane Carruth.