This post discusses plot points from the movie Upstream Color.
Shane Carruth movies, for all that he’s directed only two of them, Primer and this year’s Upstream Color, seem perfectly designed for the internet age: dense, mysterious, and designed to be collaboratively decoded. But I’ve been thinking about Upstream Color since I saw it SXSW last month and had a reaction to it that was so strong and personal that I had to sit with it for a while. And I’ve decided that the best way to watch this wildly romantic movie about two deeply damaged people who come to love each other is emotionally rather than rationally, to accept its profound strangenesses rather than to try to understand them.
Those strangenesses are considerable. The movie begins when Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young film producer, is abducted and drugged with what appears to be a worm, outside of a bar. The man who has captured her procedes to order her to empty her bank accounts, to sign over her house, to drink glasses of water, and to copy over pages from Walden, and then to abandon her to face the loss of her job, her financial security, and large parts of her memory alone—though not before an enormous worm has been extracted from her body and implanted in a rather cheerful-looking pig. The people who are intervening in Kris’ life are extraordinarily strange, and the things they’re doing to her are stranger. But their strangeness is precisely what makes them powerful figures—they’re specters of ineffable forces like loss, mental illness, and isolation who suggest a sinister plan to the universe rather than the randomness of fate.
Kris might have struggled to reclaim control of her life on her own, but Upstream Color is more than a simple narrative of vengeance and female empowerment. As she comes back to herself after having been attacked, Kris’ recovery doesn’t happen in isolation: she meets Jeff (Carruth), and she’s forced to reckon with someone who is more willing to trust her and to invest in her than she is in herself.
What makes the courtship and growth of the relationship between Kris and Jeff so powerful is the extent to which Carruth has used extraordinarily strange circumstances as a frame for emotional realities that more conventional movies prefer to obscure. When Jeff spots Kris on the train they both ride to work, she’s initially diffident, understanding herself—not without reason, given that she appears to have spontaneously destroyed her own life—as far too damaged to be a worthy romantic prospect. When he asks for her phone number, she tells him only to call her for professional reasons: she has started working at a small print shop after being fired from her job as a film editor after her inexplicable absence. “I’m not going to call for signage, though,” Jeff warns her. “I don’t need any signage.” That he might want her for herself is almost impossible for Kris to comprehend, and she avoids him. But Jeff pursues her anyway in a display of curiosity and budding ardor that Carruth carefully calibrates to seem eager, but not overpowering. “I can’t do this every day,” Jeff finally tells Kris after she’s ducked a number of his calls, and revealing that he’s shuffling his schedule to talk to her. “It makes me late for work. You’re four trains behind me.”
It’s his insistence that opens up a conversation that’s almost wholly foreign to romantic movies, about Kris’ firm belief that she is unlovable, and Jeff’s demand for a right to try to love her. There’s something remarkable about Kris’ declaration of her mental health issues, laying her pill bottles out on a table at a cafe and telling Jeff “I think I’ve saved us both three to four weeks.” In a movie environment where failed dates and series of dates mostly exist as montage, it’s striking to see an acknowledgement of how painful it is to go through that cycle over and over, particularly when you have a tendency to self-sabotage even promising relationships. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to that,” Jeff tells her, but he isn’t scared off, trying to come up with comparable damage to reveal to Kris so she will accept that they are equals in their trauma, as well as their attraction. “I am divorced. That’s not good, right?” he admits. “That’s not great,” Kris tells him, softening, but not entirely convinced. It isn’t until later that Jeff will reveal the full extent to which he’s as compromised as Kris, perhaps even more so, given that her life fell apart inexplicably, while he was the author of his own misfortune. “I don’t have an office. I work in a common space,” he tells her before they go to an office party. “I stole money, Kris…You’re going to know, because everyone knows. They look at me in a certain way, a way you don’t look at me, yet.”
The idea that Kris could know the truth about Jeff and not look at him that way, that Jeff could see Kris’ pill bottles and be undeterred, these are the true and powerful mysteries of Upstream Color. “Something happened to me. Something bad,” Kris tells Jeff at one point, giving him yet another escape hatch from their relationship. But he stubbornly insists that “I don’t care.” Early in their relationship, Jeff rests his arm across Kris’ shoulders on the train and asks her “Is it all right that I have that there?” “Will you fall down if you don’t have it there?” Kris asks him tartly. “Yeah, maybe,” Jeff tells her with a tender bluntness. The idea that she could be a pillar of strength for him is a novel idea for Kris, an illustration of the way love rearranges power relationships and conventional understandings of value. Those realignments will be profoundly tested by revelations that Kris’ trauma has rendered her unable to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term for reasons she can’t understand, and by Kris’ obsession with sounds that she hears coming from their foundation. “I haven’t slept at all. I haven’t slept at all. I’m sorry,” Kris apologizes to Jeff, ashamed both of her own fear, and by Jeff’s willingness to try to find the source of the noise even to the extent of digging up their foundation. When it turns out she’s correct that some larger forces have been manipulating their lives, Kris both gets back a measure of trust in herself, and the ability to see Jeff’s love for her as something that might have a basis in her real value.
So who are the farmer and the gardener? Are they God and the Devil, existing in a kind of symbiosis, the piglets the farmer ties in a sack and dumps in the stream fertilizing the orchids the gardener uses to incapacitate his victims and to produce the agony disorientation that the farmer feeds into the pigs in the form of parasitic worms and then observes with a kind of tenderness, collecting the sounds that become his sympathy? Does it matter for us to know? The farmer and the gardener are such rich manifestations of the incomprehensibility of true pain and the inexplicable power it asserts over our lives against our reason and our will that rationalizing them would strip them of their authority and their plain grandeur. If we could rationalize the random cruelty of the world, we’d be able to contain it if not defeat it. Sometimes accepting that recovery is a rope of yellow flowers that Kris finds in the pool, that loss of control seeps into our lives like blue dye leaks from a bag of dead animals into a watershed, is the best we can do to acknowledge the impact the worst of our lives had had on us, without requiring ourselves to defeat it completely in order to be healed—or to be worthy of love.