This is not a review. It’s not really meant for someone who hasn’t seen it. Sorry about that.
My issue with Upstream Color is a simple but significant gripe. For all the neat little Nabokovian rabbit-hole-like clues (What’s the significance of Walden for instance?) and the ambiguities (Are The Thief and the The Sampler in cahoots? Did The Sampler deserve to die?) Carruth shies away from the deeper psychological subject matter in lieu of what is—for all its strangeness—an unsurprising Hollywood arc.
Well, it is surprising because I expected something more interesting than a clan of victims becoming pig farmers after Kris (Amy Seimetz) does exactly the same thing that Kirsten Dunst’s righteously indignant character does at the end of Eternal Sunshine.
The effective use of the kinds of ambiguity Carruth creates, in my mind, are better as front-loaded premise justifiers for going off on flights of philosophical or psychological fancy than creating a structure that looks like this: Setup. What the fuck? Oh okay. Wait, what? Oh I get it! Hm, nope. Heart-Warming Resolution!
Shane Carruth is a great, original filmmaker. It’s immediately obvious. He has his own film language, a beautiful stream of imagery that washes over you. He’s an inspiring auteur, especially when you realize how self-reliant a filmmaker he actually is. I absolutely loved the bulk of this film.
As Film School Rejects note in one of their hundred-something reviews of this single film, “for Upstream Color, dialogue is largely a secondary means of conveying meaning—[its] primary “language” is that of juxtaposition and visual metaphor.” And Carruth’s performance as a storyteller in this mode is used to great effect.
But it fell far short of its promise.
It’s much more interesting—to me at least, and apparently not the hordes of jizz-spewing fan-boys coating the internet with their warm gooey awe—to study two mysteriously brainwashed characters meld into a single mind, losing track of whose memories are whose, giving in to strange impulses born from a shared traumatic past, creating their own island unto themselves because no one—including themselves—can any longer understand what they’re up to than it is to solve a sci-fi mystery about a pig farmer who probably listens to a lot of Brian Eno.
Carruth touches on some really cool ideas, like when Kris and Jeff argue over whose story is whose, but that’s nothing more than a five-minute argument sequence that doesn’t pay off in the least.
But Kris and Jeff should’ve fought their own mental, emotional, interpersonal battles irrespective of The Sampler. The ties that bound Kris and Jeff to their pigs—mankind to nature, if you want to get all in there—could have been dealt with differently, more inventively, than just a family reunion.
The Sampler should’ve had his own emotional journey with regard to his charges, his pigs, his nosy neighbor, his (really random) record label. Like when he spies on the bearded guy whose girlfriend is dying in the hospital: that could become a really significant moment in the life of such a manipulative, secluded weirdo, but instead he stares stolidly at this poor asshole he once saved from parasitic death. The Sampler is less a character than a functional cog in a machine-like story.
I think the problem might lie in the fact that the setup could spring-load either a mystery or a crazy psychological investigation into the nature of identity, and for most of the movie it seems to have done the latter, but at the last minute Carruth decides to have his characters become unwitting sleuths and solve a mystery that they didn’t even know they were the victims of.
That The Thief is never caught does not count as a lack of resolution because the characters think they’re finished and we have no reason to think they’re wrong. They’ve completed their journey. In a way, at least. And somehow that involves becoming pig farmers.
That they solved it for themselves when the audience knew what was going on the whole time definitely undercuts the satisfaction of a good mystery, but whatever. The movie doesn’t sell itself as a mystery; it just resolves in a way that pretends it does.
One problem that no one seems to have pointed out is that it ends with the false revelation that Kris and Jeff and the other brainwashed victims are all better now that they know about the origins of their sickness, but we’ve seen enough of how fucked up they truly are to know it’ll take a lot more to unfuck their minds than coddling parasite-infected piggies.
This is one way to tell the (admittedly flimsy) distinction between “character based” and “plot based” apart.
In the final stretch, Carruth dropped focus from investigating the (really, really interesting) minds of his characters to focus on his own puzzle-making, his own cleverness, and this is why the story fails. We’re left with a puzzle featuring people rather than people stuck inside of a puzzle.