Puzzles and poetry and Upstream Color

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 this point, whether or not you will like Upstream Color might easily be determined by whether or not the idea that a human love story is simultaneously reflected by two pigs with parasitic worms in their brains holds any appeal to you
Like a poem, it’s easy to discuss a fall into a rhythm when discussing a film like Upstream Color by simply taking each stanza and describing it. And as with poetry, that can shortchange the film’s artistry. Upstream Color is a film of stunning beauty. You cannot see its $50,000 budget on a first glance. This is a film assembled with utmost care. Like the best work of Jim Jarmusch and Terrence Malick, each shot feels carefully constructed, each as significant as the one before it. Shane Carruth directed, wrote, and stars in this film. He also shot it and composed its beautiful ambient soundtrack. One of the film’s most beautiful shots begins as one of its ugliest; a shot of a dead pig in a river bursts into a bloom of color flowing down the river, the shock of an image of death slowly becoming something bizarrely lovely, an ode to the cycles of nature.
Upstream Color is as opaque as it needs to be. The love story at its center is surprisingly pure. The film suggests a small world of people like them, deposited on the side of the road, left to answer mysteries with no answers. That Kris and Jeff came together, the movie suggests, is odd. It throws off the controlling forces of the Thief and the Sampler. We have a slightly clearer view of things than Kris and Jeff do; we know why they connect, and we wait to see if they can figure it out themselves. The level of that connection becomes the driving force of the movie; whether or not Kris and Jeff solve their personal mysteries is not as important as that they came together to do so. There’s a moment when Kris cannot stop swimming in the pool, as if in a trance. She swims, retrieves broken pieces of concrete from the bottom of the pool, and recites Walden. How Jeff reacts to this shows a side to relationships that films rarely think to explore: not romance, but understanding.

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About johnmichaelmaximilian

Freelance writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Movies are my favorite thing.

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