Every now and then a movie will present itself as a puzzle only to be revealed as a poem. A puzzle is a series of abstract elements with no apparent meaning or connection. In working out the connection, you derive the meaning.
A poem, I think, is best summed up by this quote from the film Bright Star: “The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought.”
It’s tempting to see Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color as a puzzle. It provides tantalizing details about its world without fully explaining them. Its characters are frequently as at a loss over what’s happening as we are. This is a film told in passages, some sinister, some confounding, some heartbreaking, some sensuous.
I have written before about how I disagree with the suggestion that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a “tone poem”. It’s a film with a story to tell, it can just be hard to see if we don’t expand our scope to include the entire history of the universe. Upstream Color is more clearly structured as poetry, with three clear stanzas, and a strong sense of tone and rhythm.
The opening act of Upstream Color is an unnerving deepdive into the bulk of its exposition. We see a man extracting grubs from the roots of orchids. He kidnaps a woman named Kris, forces her to ingest a grub. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the grub has a hypnotic effect. She obeys his commands. He tells her that a few sips of water will sustain her, and she seems convinced. He has her write out Henry David Thoureau’s “Walden” page by page, turning each piece of paper into a chain. He uses her hypnosis to extract all of her money from her account. It’s an astoundingly detailed and specific form of extortion. One could see this character (called the Thief) as the protagonist of his own crime film. As it is, he is putting the pieces of the film into play.
Kris snaps out of her hypnosis enough to eat, and to realize that she is infected with a parasite. She attempts and fails to cut it out, as it has grown huge in size, pulsing underneath her skin. She then is drawn to the woods, where a man has uses sound waves to attract the parasites within her. He extracts the worm from Kris’s body, transfers it into a pig, and then deposits her in a car on the side of the road. She has no memory of the events that have transpired. She attempts to return to work only to find she’s been fired. She has lost all her savings, but there was no apparent theft; security footage shows her withdrawing her money herself. Kris has no choice but to try to move on, but from what she does not know.
This bizarre first act reads like an avant-garde film, but plays out in actuality with the precision of a thriller. The difference here is that this setup is not for a heist, but a love story.
Kris meets a man named Jeff. They connect emotionally without seeming to know why. Both have strange habits. Jeff makes paper chains as one might mindlessly bite their nails. Kris likes to swim at the gym’s pool, gathering pieces of debris from the bottom of the pool, reciting Walden. Kris and Jeff are souls troubled for the same reason, they don’t know it, and yet that uncertainty, that loss of what they do not know draws them closer.
All the while, on a farm, the pig farmer (called The Sampler in the credits) from before wanders through his drove, occasionally leaning close to one. Through the pig, he can observe the lives of the people once infected by that pig’s parasite. It’s sinister and touching at the same time; this man knowingly participates in the theft of people’s autonomy, and yet he seems invested in the observations. One heartbreaking stretch involves a man whose wife collapses shortly after he rebukes her attempt to make amends after an argument. The man relives that last moment over and over again, imagining different outcomes as his wife lies comatose in her hospital bed.
This material is undoubtedly too abstruse for some, and that is understandable. I chose not to try to figure it out, to simply drift as a curious observer of this strange world. This is a strange film, but at its core there is a purity to the emotions on display. Kris and Jeff quietly, at times wordlessly, deconstruct the void that binds them. At the same time, they experience symbiosis to their ungulate counterparts’ behavior.* Kris and Jeff engage in impulsive, sometimes strange behavior. They get married out of the blue. They experience moments of mutual terror, hiding together in the bathtub with an axe.
At one point in the last act of Mad Max: Fury Road there is a shot like something out of the far corner of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The land is gray and muddy, a glimpse of moisture in endless miles of desert. But this is no oasis; the air teems with crows, and the natives of this landscape are dressed in cloaks, walking on towering four-legged stilts. The film regards them for a moment, allowing us to take in the sinister beauty of what we are looking at. Whether or not the image had anything to do with the plot was not relevant to me at that moment: it was an image astonishing and completely new. I love when a movie offers me something I have never seen before. Mad Max: Fury Road offers such images like a buffet table, if that buffet table had wheels and a V8.
This is director George Miller’s fourth time in this world. Fury Road is so assured in the story it wants to tell, so relentlessly spectacular in a way that shames what we have come to accept as “spectacle” from our movies, that I wonder if the first three were simply an elaborate dress rehearsal for this one. I have long considered the ending of The Road Warrior my favorite movie chase scene. Trying to pick the best chase scene from Fury Road is fruitless; the chase in this movie begins in the first act and never lets up until the last scene. Tom Hardy is a splendid choice to take over the titular role. He has a weary charisma that always makes itself known, no matter how dark the material gets. But the real star of this film, in both plot and presence, is Charlize Theron. Her character, Imperitor Furiosa, is the film’s primary dynamic character, and the heartbeat of the film’s story. Max is an agent in her arc; he knows what he is about, but she is on the final chapter of a lifelong search for redemption. Her goal: save the five women enslaved for breeding by Immortan Joe, a hulking, pasty dictator who controls what must be the only water supply in a reasonable radius.
Immortan Joe wields control over a small empire; sickly, brainwashed young men called War Boys fight for him with the promise that he will lead them to Valhalla when they die. Children pound endlessly on drums to announce his presence, when he makes appearances for show from his lair within a towering desert cliff. In the canyon below, thousands of his subjects wait in desperation for the small amount of water he rations them, as he warns them not to get addicted to it. Miller has always excelled at building worlds on the fly, laughing off the idea of stopping for exposition. He makes full use of the screen as a canvas; the details, like the moment I mentioned in the opening here, never stop coming. Every new detail fills out another corner of this wild world he he crafted. Every detail adds to the story. At one point, Nux, a conflicted War Boy played by a splendid Nicholas Hoult, mentions his friends Barry and Harry. When asked who they are, he points to two lumps on shoulder. Believe me, knowing what we know about the world he has lived in, this ends up being far more heartbreaking than gross.
There are many little moments like that, flashes that tell us something about the people in this world. One moment that made me smile was an exhcnage between two of the women Furiosa is protecting: one of them (named The Dag) is praying furiously during a heated battle, using gestures from just about every known religion and I’m sure some that had since popped in the film’s universe. Another (named
Cheedo the Fragile I was mistaken; it was, in fact, the extraordinarily named Toast the Knowing in this scene) asks, confused, who exactly she is praying too. “Whoever will listen,” Dag says.
These days it seems there is a general acceptance that lots of action must come at the expense of good characters. That, I think, underestimates how much story you can tell through action. There is a scene where Max and Furiosa come across a woman suspended in a wooden tower, crying for help. Consider their respective reactions, and how much we can learn from the characters in just a few seconds: Max’s hesitation to help her comes from years of pragmatic survival and instinct. And the way Furiosa brushes off his concerns, it’s immediately apparent that she is not simply listening to her emotions; she clearly knows more about what is happening here than he does. This isn’t showy writing and acting, but it is good writing and acting, the sort of quickfire storytelling that a film that moves as much as this one needs. And by god does it move.
This is truly relentless action, a story told in 360 degrees. Every angle by which one might infiltrate a moving truck is explored here, including from directly above. Considering the lack of aircraft in this world, that particular method is truly ingenious. The film’s finest art direction is saved for these chase scenes, as armies of chopped and reassembled vehicles pursue Max and Furiosa’s single big-rig. At one point early in the film, the chase is underway, and we see a vehicle with a band of drummers pounding away, unexpectedly providing the film’s score. At the front of this truck was a guitarist, faceless with a ghoulish mask, held in place by bungee cords, rocking power chords as storms of dust kick up around him. That, I thought, is something I have never seen before.