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FILM REVIEW: Upstream Color

Categories: Movies

"Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives." (from summary posted on

You know you're in for a trip when the film you're watching questions identity in its own logline. From writer/director/composer/once-engineer Shane Carruth comes Upstream Color, a Mobius Strip of a movie that some will enjoy untangling.

On the surface this is a stunning bit of cinema by a filmmaker working with what he calls an "emotional language." The vocabulary here is a combination of visual cues, music and scenes that fold back on themselves like origami. This is not a movie that is going to spoonfeed you, but more like an abstract painting, open to a vast array of interpretations.

Mind control

Upstream Color Amy Seimetz, left, and Shane Carruth in Upstream Color. (ERBP Films/Associated Press)

Upstream Color is a film about mind control and consciousness. At its heart is a question about who we are and what persists. What would be left of you if a thug fed you a drug that erased your mind, destroyed your control, brainwashed you into mind games where you copied books, survived on ice water and signed away your life savings?

That is what happens to Kris near the beginning of this film, the victim of a mind-altering grub drug of some sort. The assailant's voice is so calm, so fluid, it barely seems like an assault, until Kris is left gasping on her kitchen floor. Unmoored, she stumbles through life and into the path of Jeff (played by Carruth himself). He recognizes something broken in her and perhaps in himself. They begin a fitful relationship of sorts. Meanwhile, a man called "The Sampler" takes care of real pigs at a farm — the pigs may or may not be vessels for the consciousness of the victims of mind control.

This description actually makes Upstream Color seem more logical than it is. Carruth may have a master plan in mind for this film, but it's so deliberately vague, full comprehension seems to be beside the point. The truth is, there are places I could go to read what Carruth intended, but I've already come to my own conclusions. That's the strength of Upstream Color — the film is rich enough to support various views.

Unquestionable delights

Like Carruth's first film Primer, this is a movie that opens itself to almost the Talmudic level of deconstruction. So let me just praise a few of its unquestionable delights. The delicate, scattered performance of Amy Seimetz as the wounded Kris. Carruth's emotional yet electronic sound design, sure to send many running for the soundtrack. The empty, stilted imagery of the cities (similar to Terrence Malick's latest effort To the Wonder.)

If you're looking for a movie that's a feast for the senses and a veritable smorgasbord of food for thought, Upstream Color is something worth savouring. It's testament to the film's construction that one of my colleagues, Andrew Parker, changed the way he felt about the film with every viewing (and even ended his review offering to explain things over coffee.) Not many movies encourage us reach out in such a fashion, perhaps that's part of Upstream's spell.

RATING: 4 out of 5

Opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox April 12th

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