I reckon a ton of Ghana has heard its fair share of Upstream Color director, Shane Carruth given the Abraham Attah ties that were belted out when the young was a mainstay in news cycles. However, cinephiles will recognise this quintessential indie director as much more given his insensate cerebral but still gripping handling of the two films in his back catalogue.
I’ll start by saying Upstream Color is one of the most bizarre films out there; deliberately complex but executed on a canvas of the eerily dreamlike simplicity. It makes you worry about a man like Carruth who wrote, directed, edited and composed the music of this film. Bear in mind his script for The Modern Ocean, his upcoming feature, is reportedly filled with diagrams. He also stars in this film as Jeff, a man with a troubled past to put it simply. He meets and catches feelings for a lady called Kris who is coming of similar personal crisis and it is through her that we get an inkling of what transpired in Jeff’s past.
Early in the film we meet a mysterious figure credited as The Thief (Thiago Martins). The films bright colors and innocuous suburban feel don’t suggest anything ominous but things start to get intriguing when we are introduced to these yeerk-like worms he cultivates. There is something poetic about learning what these worms can do and the film still sports bright exposure and no evident nefarious hints. The Thief however cultivates these worms with ill-intent as we come to realise. He kidnaps Kris in the first dark moment of this film and injects her with the yeerk-like parasites.
It is kind of difficult to explain exactly how these worms work but we gather they give The Thief total control over Kris’ very existence. A lesser film could have played this as magic spell or some sort of generic hypnosis and still gotten away with solid narrative. Carruth is much too complex for that. For the purposes of simplicity, just think of Kris as being under a mind control spell. The Thief begins to define the boundaries of her reality. He convinces her his face is the sun so she does not look at him and basically programmes her to engage bizarre routines and activities.
On a basic level Kris is straight out abused by The Thief. The obvious question is why, and yes there may be some cynical reasons for Kris’ abduction given her bank accounts are wiped clean but again, that is much too simple for Carruth. We get the sense there is a cycle at play when we meet The Sampler. He is seems to be a collector of sounds and vibrations like tumbling rocks. He also breeds pigs, another piece of this film’s puzzle that establishes some rules in this world – rules we have very little understanding of.
Kris finds herself drawn into the domain of The Sampler and he extracts the worm from Kris and transfers it into one of his pigs. This almost simultaneously establishes an existential link between her and the animal. I think it safe to say something similar happened to Jeff and he too has a pig walking around with some semblance of his essence. This idea appears to be enforced by the some sequences with the two pigs that all but hold parallel resonance to Kris and Jeff. Of course, Carruth doesn’t go against type by making this juxtaposition clear.
What is Carruth’s deal? He has just two films under his belt for such an enticing filmmaker, both different in approach but undeniably from a pure creative hub. Snippets of the idea of duality of identity present an easy reference to Cronenberg. We also have these wandering abstract presentations of nature I always and cheaply attribute to Terrance Malick. But this film is so open ended and uniquely unrestrained as Carruth plays the ultimate puppet master by constructing this world and establishing its own mysteries far beyond the reach of simple minds like Kris, Jeff or ourselves.
The open ended nature of this film saw me grasp a somewhat theological angle from proceedings. Is it possible The Thief is a Lucifer type figure? He aims and succeeds at robbing one of his or her true nature and leaves the stain of the yeerk-like creatures that need purging. Is The Sampler Jesus? He calls out to and restores the lost, as we see in Kris’s case. He purges her of the parasite and interestingly transfers them into swine – sounds like a familiar exorcism. The sampler also hovers like a (creepy) spectral presence as the film unravels exuding some level of omniscience. To draw on this allusion is to also admit this film has a somewhat nihilistic streak given this film’s resolution in what could be termed as a quite accurate depiction of Man’s arduous relationship with God.
With all these mysteries flying around, it is easy to forget there is romance at the core of this film. This film opens up almost to a fault and it does take away from the intriguing union and character moments of Kris and Jeff. They have the requisite agency but are visibly overpowered by the complex world they inhabit. The exploration of identity continues when their relationship is placed under the scope and we get moments like when they start to recall one another’s memories hinting at the union they aspire to but one they are not prepared for.
I feel like there is a method to the madness we see but isn’t driving at anything definite. The absence of a resolution mars this film but weirdly makes it unique. Its narrative swirls round and round giving you little time to connect the dots. Second viewings leave largely the same effect. I guess I want to ultimately call this Carruth’s largely experimental take on existentialism – complicated and flawed but only because it needs to be to remain complete.