Filmmaker Shane Carruth made his bones in the indie film world with the 2004 science fiction puzzle Primer. The ultra-low budget film, concerning a group of engineers who accidentally invent time travel, collected the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival.
It's become something of a legend in filmmaking circles: Primer was made for a little over $7,000 with Carruth acting as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, co-star and musical composer. For fans of thinky, conceptual sci-fi, it's a real gem. After seeing it on DVD, I spent hours online trying to figure out all the time travel paradoxes.
Carruth's long-anticipated second film, Upstream Color, premiered just last month in theaters and has already been ported to DVD, thanks to Carruth's typically unorthodox method of self-distribution. The film is still popping up in art houses around the country and, in fact, it may still wind up playing here in town.
Upstream Color is a fantastic film, one of the year's best so far, and a giant leap forward for Carruth as a storyteller and filmmaker. If Primer was startling, Upstream Color is stunning. It's like watching a pencil sketch artist discover oil paints.
Once again, Carruth writes, directs, acts and composes the music. Clearly, he's a hand-on sort of fellow. Like Primer, Upstream Color pleasurably confounds by refusing to play by the rules of traditional movie narrative.
The story, so far as it can be told:
Amy Seimetz (The Killing) plays Kris, a young urban professional who is assaulted in nightclub by a nameless thief. She's forced to ingest a rare larva, which we learn has been taken from the root system of a particularly exotic orchid. The larva drains her free will and the thief spends the next few days in Kris' home, walking her through the motions as she liquidates all her assets and hands them over. He also forces her, for some reason, to transcribe Thoreau's Walden.
Kris awakens several days later with no memory of what happened. But her life as she knew it is gone, as is a portion of her mind and personality. She is subsequently summoned by another mysterious stranger, who surgically removes the larva and seems to be somehow harvesting her psychic misery. Kris returns to the city a shell of her former self.
One day she meets a kindred spirit on the train. Disgraced financier Jeff (Carruth) appears to have suffered the same trauma as Kris. Together they try to assemble their fractured memories. The two seem to be developing a gestalt-mind bond, where identity and memory blend and merge. Details elsewhere in the film suggest that Kris and Jeff have become part of the life cycle of another organism entirely. They sense, too, that there are more people out there in the same desperate situation.
That's about as far as it's fair to go, because the pleasure of Upstream Color comes from watching the film unfold like an origami nightmare. The story flips and turns, fragments and reforms again. There are connective elements, but they aren't where we usually look for them, within the narrative. Instead, they're woven into the film's densely layered fabric of carefully composed images, sounds and music. If it doesn't make literal sense, that's entirely by design.
It's important to note that, while Upstream Color is experimental in approach, it's not an "experimental film" in the usual sense of the term. It's a fully-rounded storytelling experience that engages the head and the heart. The love story between Kris and Jeff is quite traditional, if you overlook the electronic pulse messages, the Cronenbergian body trauma and the telepathic pigs. The film is just broadcasting on different frequencies than we're used to.
I suspect different people will find different things as they peer into Upstream Colors. In the end, I was thinking about such varied ideas as the mystery of consciousness, the cruelty of addiction and the psychology of the long con. Also: Psychic orchids.
In a recent interview with Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment radio show and podcast, Carruth said that he doesn't like to make films that can be easily reduced to synopsis. Films should go to the places that the written word, and other mediums, can't go. Otherwise, what's the point? Not coincidentally, it's a sentiment that can also be applied to science fiction as a genre.
It's useful to go into the film with these notions in mind. Upstream Color is the kind of cerebral science fiction movie that will make defenders of the form swell with pride. Copies should be sent to every studio executive in Hollywood with greenlight authority. See? This is what can be done! Now give Shane Carruth some money for his next project.
Also New This Week:
Tom Cruise initiates yet another potential franchise with the actioner Jack Reacher, based on the book series by British author Lee Child. Cruise plays a former military investigator turned righteous drifter who gets involved in a mysterious sniper killing. The Russian mafia gets involved, as usual, and Reacher must square off against a criminal mastermind played with zesty malice by filmmaker Werner Herzog. The intriguing character of Jack Reacher is the best reason to see the film. He dispenses his own brand of justice in the time-honored tradition of a certain strain of movie cowboys and cops.
From executive producer Guillermo del Toro, the twitchy horror film Mama explores the spectral side of the maternal instinct.
Safe Haven, based on yet another of author Nicholas Sparks' North Carolina romances, stars Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel and the small town environs of Southport, N.C.
Look for the DVD set of the seventh and final season of 30 Rock — TV's all-time funniest comedy, in my slightly obsessive opinion. Bonus materials include audio commentaries, deleted scenes and a final studio tour with series creator Tina Fey.
HBO's four-part documentary series Witness follows the work of war photographers in four dangerous conflict zones in Mexico, Libya, Brazil and South Sudan.
The documentary Citizen Hearst traces the life and career of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and the 125-year history of the Hearst media empire.
Plus: Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener in the indie comedy The Oranges and TV-on-DVD season sets from Fringe, Private Practice, Gunsmoke, Rookie Blue, Flashpoint and the History channel special WWII from Space.