Writer-director-actor Shane Carruth’s first film, 2004’s “Primer,” was a dazzlingly baffling low-budget science-fiction drama that investigated the real-world problems that occur when two engineering buddies accidentally invent a time machine. Just because the film was coldly analytical didn’t make it any less riveting—if anything, Carruth’s background in engineering and mathematics gave the story an unnerving realism that made it all the more unsettling and surreal.
It’s been nine years since “Primer,” and the good news is that, rather than repeating himself, his long-awaited follow-up explores different thematic and emotional terrain. The even better news is that Carruth has topped his previous effort.
Those looking for another mindbender on the order of “Primer” will be disappointed by “Upstream Color,” which is deeply enigmatic in its own way but also far more resonant—to say nothing of terrifying. It tells the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz), a successful young woman who one night is drugged and kidnapped by a mysterious man (Thiago Martins) who inserts an organism inside her that makes her highly susceptible to suggestion. The man’s plan, which won’t be revealed here, leaves Kris devastated and jobless—without any memory of what happened. Some time later, and still rattled by her experience, she meets Jeff (Carruth), a financial executive who begins a tentative relationship with her.
If “Primer” was a Rubik’s Cube, “Upstream Color” is a poem or a half-remembered dream—or, more accurately, a nightmare. This romantic drama boasts elements of horror and sci-fi, and it has something of the ethereal grandeur of Terrence Malick and the non sequitur strangeness of David Lynch. Goosed along by Carruth’s ominous, spare electronic score, “Upstream Color” is consistently discomfiting, establishing early on a deceptively recognizable world but one in which sinister and unusual events are constantly occurring. Even Kris and Jeff’s courtship has its own peculiar rhythms, unexplained disconnections between the characters threatening to undermine their growing love.
Despite the film’s ambiguities and off-kilter tone, though, “Upstream Color” actually possesses a rather clear thematic through-line, exploring the ways in which people rebuild themselves in the wake of trauma. Carruth remains a chilly filmmaker, but his reserved style only enhances his movie’s reverberating emotional undercurrents. And he’s grown into a stronger onscreen presence during his nine-year absence, playing Jeff with a remove that makes him an intriguingly enigmatic love interest. Even better is his costar. Kris goes through unimaginable physical and psychological turmoil in “Upstream Color,” and Seimetz portrays both the vulnerability and the measured hope that perhaps she’s found a partner who can help her finally confront her past. People going to see “Upstream Color” won’t be surprised by how intellectually engaging it is. But they might not be prepared for how moving it is as well.
Critic’s Score: A-
Directed by Shane Carruth
Casting by Kina Bale
Starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins