“Upstream Color” (2013) Review
I have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Simple as that. Shane Carruth’s recent release is a film that can be described in many different ways – “experimental”, “art film”, “abstract” – however, no classification could really do it justice. Even in broad terms such as sci-fi or drama, Upstream Color cannot find a home. Be assured, you have never seen anything like Upstream Color – and I mean that in a good way.
If you’re familiar with Carruth through his first film, Primer, you know he has talent. Upstream Color has a similar, yet completely different style than that first release. While both films are highly complex, revealing most secrets upon repeated viewings, they differ in their approach. Primer was a rational, sci-fi story with a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push the story forward and make sense of the film’s logic. Upstream Color relies mostly on its audiovisual presentation to portray its story – there is much less of a focus on dialogue (with the last half-hour being nearly free of any spoken words) and more attention on ambient sounds, thematic imagery, and striking visuals. This focus allowed Carruth to create on of the most original films I’ve seen in a long while.
As far as plot goes, the less you know going into Upstream Color, the better. While I will avoid any major spoilers, I still recommend not reading ahead if you are definitely going to see this film in order to get the most out of the experience…..
Still there? Okay. The easiest way to give an idea of the plot of Upstream Color is to say that the film is about the life cycle of an organism, the players who continue the cycle, and those who are affected by it. This basis becomes much more elaborate as the film weaves many themes into its story and presents the viewer with a multi-layered puzzle that at times can be both simple and incredibly complex at the same time. As it stands, the film places the viewer as an inanimate object observing these natural cycles and people and forces you to put all the pieces together actively and pass your own judgement at times. The story may seem to be abstract nonsense to some (and those that don’t enjoy experimental film-making will surely dislike the film), but I assure you there is a coherent narrative here that allows for some personal interpretation.
With this narrative in place, both sound design and cinematography take over and breathe life into the story. While it is often easy to look at the visuals and sound areas of a film separately, here it is not possible – the two are intertwined and integral to the experience. That being said, the overall presentation is absolutely stunning. From Carruth’s ambient soundtrack, to his adept editing, to the striking cinematography, the film amazes its audience in each and every scene. The only real negative for this piece of the film is the dialogue volume. For some reason (possibly due to the focus on ambient sounds and nature throughout the film), the volume of the dialogue in the film is too low. In one sense, this serves to put more of an emphasis on the aforementioned ambience – in another, it is maddening as the viewer has to struggle at times to make out some of the dialogue. Still, this is a small price to pay in the scope of the overall presentation.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that both Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself (yes, he wrote, directed, did the soundtrack for, produced, and starred in his film) both did a great job with their roles. With little dialogue in parts of the film, the cast must speak through expressions and actions – something that the entire cast does a wonderful job of doing. The nuances in each performance really help bring the viewer further into each character’s mindset and perspective.
In conclusion, as I said before, you have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Still, you will be glad you saw Upstream Color (unless, of course, you are not a fan of experimental film-making). The presentation and plot of the film are stunning and highly original, and Carruth is surely someone of talent to keep an eye on in the film industry. While there may be some issues with the dialogue audio levels, this hardly detracts from what will be the most original film you’ll see all year. Even if you don’t understand exactly what you saw, I think you will have a hard time saying you didn’t enjoy it.
Final Score: 9.0/10