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.”