Movie Review: Upstream Color
If I were to summarize the action in this movie, I’d have to stop before the part (about 70 minutes in to a 96 minute film) where everything starts getting pieced together, some vague feelings are confirmed, and the connections are brought to the forefront. To spell everything out would deprive you of the entire reason for watching; seeing everything unfold and sorting out the vague, tenuous associations.
The piecing, as it is, is entirely tentative, and I’m still trying to figure out how some of the characters made connections without the benefit of seeing the scenes and edits I saw. Maybe they just felt it. That’s what much of this movie is; not a narrative so much as a visceral experience.
An attempted summation might go something like: a woman experiences a traumatic event at the hands of a stranger, and in seeking relief from its aftereffects, finds another stranger who alleviates part of her pain while psychically linking her to something which will cause her greater mental anguish. The woman then tries prescriptions for what is diagnosed as a mental illness. She takes to riding the train, whether to her new, mindless job or aimlessly around the city, it’s unclear. On the train, she meets a man who is powerfully drawn to her despite being given only reasons not to be. They slowly reveal their identities to each other; meanwhile, their past and present selves become more and more confused with the other’s self. Both continue hearing sounds which are the same, only different. These sounds are being made by a figure credited as The Sampler, and one (I) could say he’s a symbol of a filmmaker or artist who creates identities through manipulation of sound and actors. Although then one must conclude Carruth thinks actors are pigs and he is going to meet his end at the hand of one of his creations, and the analogy possibly falls apart. Or maybe not.
An attempted description might say it’s a genreless piece made with an art school sensibility. The internet is calling it a “romantic thriller science fiction,” and indeed many of its components are pieces of action, sci-fi, dramatic, and romantic films, with a sprinkling of horror. The ending five or eight minutes could be that of an M. Night Shyamalan film, if only it had some sweeping music and someone walking away into the sunset. The basic premise wouldn’t be out of place in a movie starring Rip Torn. The camerawork, editing style, scoring, and cinematography, however, defy all those genres.
Not to say any of the style choices are perfect. The lighting is generally quite good, the camerawork sometimes too noticeable, and while the edit often cuts away at the right times, it’s far too indulgent – a good 10-15 minutes could be trimmed without losing a scene or anything important, even anything beautiful, because many shots are essentially repeated and repeated. In a dream – which Upstream Color often feels like – we do sometimes replay things, but when we’re conscious of it, it’s just annoying.
Perhaps if I knew Thoreau better (“Walden,” with a lovely cover specifically designed for this film, is central to several scenes), or perhaps if I’d seen more Malick, I would have ‘gotten it’ quicker. The point, though, doesn’t seem to be to get it, but to feel it, and people will certainly feel differently about it, from PETA to art students. I had two strong reactions to scenes in this film, neither to the scene which made most of the audience gasp and groan. Then, I was too busy trying to figure out how they did it, and how I would shoot a similar scene. To each his or her own.
The two scenes I reacted to flashed me back first to a powerful moment in my past, and then to a hypothetical feeling about what I would do in a similar situation, only substituting people I knew for the characters on screen. None of this happens often to me; in fact, I can’t remember the last time I felt these ways during a singular film. For that, and for the experience of watching, it was worth it. Would I see it again? I will not. But I will ponder it for a long time.