If you want proof that there is still some life left in the American film industry (from a artistic point of view at least), look no further. After a 9-year gap Shane Carruth returns with Upstream Color, a film that surprises, enchants and mystifies to the point where watching it feels very much like dreaming. It's not an easy or accessible film by all means, but put in the effort and it will be by far one of the better films you'll come across this year.
Shane Carruth is living every film fan's dream. One day he just up and left his day job to work on his very first film ever. Without any prior film experience (he's a math major) he made Primer, one of the most thorough and realistic time travel films to date. His second project (A Topiary) never really got off the ground, but luckily he was able to fight his way back into the spotlights with Upstream Color. If anything, his latest film proves that Primer wasn't just a lucky hit.
Aside from being a self-made man, Carruth is also a major control freak. If you take a closer look at the credits, you'll see that he's involved in pretty much every department that matters. He has written the story, he plays one of the leads, the music is composed by him and cinematography and editing credits also carry his name. Hell, he's even credited as a camera operator. He may not the best actor, best musician or best cinematographer around, but having a hand in all these disciplines means that everything works so well together that it easily outweighs the drawbacks. In that sense Carruth reminds me a lot of Tsukamoto and Kitano, two of my all-time favorite directors.
Upstream Color is a film that needs to be experienced. There is an underlying story, but it isn't really communicated as such. Instead it feels like a game of "connect the dots". Bits and pieces of information are given, but without the explanation that takes you from point A to point B. Overall you get the gist of what is happening, but the true motives remain shrouded in mystery. Knowing Carruth the story isn't just there for show though, it's just impossible to take it all in on your first viewing.
Visually the true beauty of Upstream Color lies in the editing. The film in itself looks good, the camera work is solid, the lightening atmospheric and the framing is precise, but it doesn't necessarily result in landmark shots which makes it a little difficult to capture the beauty in mere screen caps. The editing brings something extra to the table though. Then again, that's what makes quality cinematography different from mere photography. Carruth cuts through time and space, through different stories and moments in the character's lives, binding all these scenes together. He also cuts quickly, making it a rather exhaustive but at times mesmerizing experience.
The soundtrack is tailored to the images. Carruth wrote the music himself and serves a healthy diet of ambient music. The soundtrack is cool, though maybe a little uneventful for people accustomed to listening to ambient outside the context of film. Still, in combination with the visuals it makes for a truly magnificent audiovisual experience. It's here than Carruth's involvement in the different disciplines really pay off, as everything gels together perfectly.
Carruth is also one of the lead actors and he fares pretty well. Seimetz has more experience and at times it shows, but there's plenty of chemistry between the two and I'm sure that having Carruth around on set (even in front of the camera) helped Seimetz to get everything just right. Sensenig and Martins are solid in their supporting roles, but their characters are rather simple and flat. In the end the film is really all about the relationship between Seimetz and Carruth.
Somehow Upstream Color felt like a sci-fi flick, even though there's nothing very scientific or futuristic going on. I'm still not sure what exactly was going on by the way, though the intro does reveal the basic setup of the film and throughout the film Carruth drops some hints. The ending was pretty vague, though I expect multiple viewings (or a Carruth Q&A) will reveal the necessary answers. For now Upstream Color is a film I feel should be experienced more than it should be understood, definitely on first viewing.
Carruth is one of America's biggest talents. His involvement in his films goes deep and it shows. He has maximum control over the end result, the difficulties in communicating one's feelings and intentions are reduced to a minimum and that results in a much tighter, more individual film. The downside (for some at least) is that it will be less accessible as there isn't a clear plot nor a lot of certainties while watching the films. Then again, things like that only made the film better for me. I hope Carruth doesn't take another 9 years to complete his next film, because the USA needs directors like him.