“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” —Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It makes sense that Shane Carruth, a polymath with a degree in mathematics, would make a film whose mode of telling most closely resembles a fractal. Apart from its references to Walden, Upstream Color is a self-contained, modern-day fable that is built on and beholden to science instead of religion. Each dense, polyvalent scene spirals around the next, utilizing exquisitely composed soundscapes and imagery to create an emotionally profound experience. At its core, Upstream Color is a bio-philosophical take on the rape-revenge film, and once the active mystery-solving impulse has faded over subsequent viewing(s), there is only the agony of witnessing a woman losing everything: her career, her home, her savings, her ability to reproduce, and, most tragically, faith in her own sanity.
An outgrowth of the director’s frustration over stalemated political arguments with his brother, Upstream Color explores whether there is a core of personality—universal or individual—that dictates behavior, or if people are the sum of their learned experience. More interestingly (and related to the equally immovable and limiting Fox News and MSNBC talking points that featured in those family debates), the movie examines what kinds of narratives, ideologies included, people create.
Yet unlike most considerations of nature versus nurture, the process by which the protagonists are delivered into a state of tabula rasa is deeply traumatic. Under the harsh fluorescent light of the grubby real world, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth) bear mental scars from their respective falls in life. These are manifest, as the film progresses, in false memories, automatic recitations of Walden that replace normal speech, and bouts of paranoid schizophrenia.
Their shared disorder permeates the film’s breathless, elliptical rhythms, in its darkest moments and in its most glowing ones that point the way to its transcendent conclusion. Kris’s loss of self begins with the shattering “bang” with which a man (identified in the credits only as “The Thief”) bursts through a backdoor into an alley, where he forcefully inserts a worm into Kris’s mouth with a water-filled oxygen pump, initiating a process of mind control. The way in which the camera woozily caresses Kris’s limbs before she finally awakes is simultaneously tender and evocative of muscle fatigue; when the careful movement is later repeated as she and Jeff lie sleeping together, arms and legs entangled after their first night together, it feels equally apt.
Despite the fantastical nature of Kris and Jeff’s story, the actors' performances have a psychological verisimilitude, and Carruth avoids entirely the clichés of depicting trauma and its symptoms. For instance, when Jeff confesses to Kris, just before entering a fancy-dress work function, that he has lied through omission about his checkered professional history, his stuttering admission is, while sparse and functional, delivered with great sincerity and control. There is never a maudlin moment of pity, or a cringe-inducing soliloquy about the shame of being a mentally ill fuckup. And during the final third of the film, when the already meager dialogue dries up completely, Carruth and Seimetz's grounded acting carry the action beyond its function as a conduit for greater thematic concerns like selfhood.
Upstream Color also mimics mental states with improvisational jazz–like editing, to often devastating effect. In one scene featuring a couple who don’t otherwise figure in the story, a man dismisses his troubled wife’s apologies while an ambulance is seen pulling away from their suburban home. The exchange is replayed (in part and in full) several times: she rushes to the door, making desperate assurances, he walks away without saying he loves her. With each iteration, his coldness is revealed as habitual. And as is all too often true in real life, he is never absolved—our final glimpse is of him sitting alone in a darkened kitchen, awash in his regret.
But psychology is only a small component of the natural world with which Carruth is playing. Biology is the driving force in Upstream, informing the film’s narrative and theoretical framework, on large and small scales alike. Elaborating upon the guiding ideas of mutability and the conservation of mass (the physical law that matter is neither created nor destroyed in a closed system), Carruth charts a moral economy. Kris is shown at a farm where an older man (“The Sampler,” per the credits) summons forth the worm inside her with ultra-bass speakers pointed at the ground (worms are drawn to vibration). What follows is a metaphorical rebirth, complete with umbilical cord: the worm inside of her is agonizingly removed with a crude pulley and implanted into a pig (pigs being the favored species, in scientific experiments, for xenotransplantation).
From this moment, Kris and the pig are emotionally connected: as she and Jeff begin to fall in love, their corresponding pigs likewise pair off and breed; when the pigs are penned, the couple’s behavior becomes aggressive. The Sampler, who performs the operation, exploits this connection for voyeuristic pleasure and inspiration for his musical compositions, which are constructed from heavily distorted recordings of natural phenomena. But unlike the Thief, who ordered her to give him everything she owned (and, as is evident by the number of pigs in The Sampler’s pen, swindled many others), The Sampler occupies a morally gray area. He is an ambiguous, ascetic figure, whose one cruel act—drowning the piglets born from the pigs associated with Jeff and Kris—could also be seen as upholding a natural order.
The piglet killing joins an intricate network of associations that reinforce the film’s sense of equilibrium as an artistic principle (and possibly explains the film’s enigmatic title). As their small bodies decay inside a frayed burlap sack, a blue tint (the same color as the powder harvested by the Thief to imbue his worms with mind-control powers) slowly leaks into the water and drifts toward the roots of a tree where white orchids grow, traveling down the screen in the opposite direction from the blue substance absorbed into Kris’s cells. Absorbing the water, a rare blue variety of flower arises and, an untold time later, is harvested and sold by an all-female collective of orchid hunters. No matter is truly destroyed, and none is created: the blue powder moves from plants to animals (worm, human, pig) and back to plants again. As this matter flows through mammals, it becomes contaminated by emotion, which is then transferred to each subsequent organism, giving the intangible physical presence and mutability.
When Kris finally takes vengeance on the Sampler, in essence punishing “the wrong man,” it seems less an unjust or deluded act than a defiant reassertion of agency. Again, questions of identity and how they affect psychological motivation arise: was her erratic behavior due to the fact that she only thought she had had a psychotic break, or did she finally overcome her trauma through murder? Like some military scapegoat prosecuted for war crimes as a stand-in for the state as a whole after genocide, his death, right or wrong, represents closure. The Thief is unable to harvest any more worms, just as the orchid hunters are unable to find any blue orchids. The final shot of Kris satisfied, smiling and cradling a piglet as if it were her own child, is a testament to the human capacity to survive great trauma, as well as the far simpler truth that, biologically speaking, life goes on. Ultimately, Carruth’s tale expresses that, despite the complexity and mutability of human beings, their essence persists.