There’s a whole slew of movies that utilize a sci-fi premise to explore loss, relationships, anger, pain & abuse, whatever. The level of investment in the sci-fi can vary — some clasp it fully and others just use it as a set up to launch complicated emotional arcs. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Her, Alien, etc.
Upstream Color is one of those movies. It is also the type that goes above and beyond and truly embraces the horrifying premise that haunts the lead characters and instills in them the pain and loss they stumble through. The shuddering body horror and confusion it evokes is singular and in some perverse bit of viewer solidarity, none of the synopses and reviews of the movie even describe it. You have to experience it visually and aurally, without prior expectations.
Upstream Color is steeped in abstraction, from its narrative to its dialogue to the quick back-and-forth cuts that comprise its scenes. Locations change, faces change in quick, often incomprehensible cuts. The dialogue is purposely low-key, unclear, and cast at a low volume compared to the music. As such, you can never decipher the full breadth of what the characters are saying and instead you have to catch just enough to gather what the sequence is communicating. I loved it, but I could see many other people loathing this ear-straining style.
(those people are lame)
The color, music, and natural scenery is beautiful. New England streams and forests, with incongruous orchids sprouting between the roots of trees. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is central to the film’s mythos and some childhood setting in Vermont is sought after, in memory, like the promised land. Music is almost always playing and sets the mood of the scene, and does as much speaking as the characters do. It often bubbles, tinkles, or roars like water. There’s actual biology specialists in the credits that designed the film’s numerous abstract closeups of birth and decomposition. This all ties together into a cohesive, if not coherent, whole.
Amy Seimetz plays the main character, Kris, and does a superb job of looking haunted and lost while anchoring the viewer to her presence. Otherwise, Upstream Color is the total vision of one man. Shane Carruth has directed, written, produced it. Did I mention he’s the male lead? Indeed, he’s the editor, the composer, the designer, and he chose the cast. It’s the sort of movie that could maybe only exist as a contained obsession.