Upstream Color (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Kidnapped and hypnotized by a thief (Thiago Martins), Kris (Amy Seimetz) wakes up in her bed seeing worms crawling underneath her skin. She tries to take them out with a knife, but she is unable to get them all. Covered in self-inflicted wounds, Kris ends up seeking help from a nameless man (Andrew Sensenig) who owns a pig farm. Through a bizarre operation, he transfers the worms into a pig. Kris goes home and discovers that her life has been upheaved from normalcy. She is out of a job due to being gone for so long and all her money is gone. Later, Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) on a train. They grab drinks. We learn he has gone through a similar ordeal.
“Upstream Color,” written and directed by Shane Carruth, tries to engage the audience through beautiful images but—do not be fooled—it is not a very good movie. For the most part, it feels too much like a work by a gifted student in film school rather than by a filmmaker who knows exactly what he wishes to communicate and how to deliver them without coming off like he is trying too hard to make the material appear insightful.
Some movies lean toward being experienced rather than being understood. Great movies show that the two need not be mutually exclusive. Despite visual acrobatics or pageantry, the concept is clear: there is meat to bite into, swallow, and digest. The entire work is worth rumination. Here, the picture lacks the meat. It does not give us enough good reasons to care for Kris. Sure, what she goes through is terrible but we never get a chance to feel close to her emotionally. When Jeff is added to the equation, we become hopeful that she will open up eventually. Instead, we watch her become more unstable. I found her whining unbearable. At one point I wondered if the pair should be together. Are we supposed to root for them to remain together?
I appreciated that the screenplay bothers to detail the specifics of the hypnosis. It is arguably the best sequence in the film because the subdued tone, the sense of danger, and the mystery are appropriate given what is happening to the main character. I found that the early images bore into my brain because later in the picture when the material works itself down to boredom, I caught myself thinking about Kris drinking water only after having finished a specific task, the page numbers of the book she must circle, and the voice providing instructions. I remembered being worried for her health given that she did not seem to be allowed to eat anything for several days.
The man who runs the pig farm is a curious character. Kris was not the first hypnotized person he has helped to proceed to lead a semblance of a normal life. It appears as though he possesses the ability to see into the lives of those people he has aided and check up on how they are doing. In addition, the humans and the pigs share a sort of psychic connection. Whatever happens to a pig has an effect to a human with respect to the worms’ former host. Though interesting on the surface, these are not explored in a fulfilling manner. We wish to look closer but we are always kept at arm’s length.
“Upstream Color” is defiantly insular. There is an audience for this kind of movie. They will defend it using words like “visionary,” “challenging,” or “lyrical.” I don’t pretend to be one of them. I have an admiration for movies that are willing to push the viewers into experiencing something new. Though the film has pieces that do work, I still found it shallow, boring at times, and way self-indulgent.