By Blake Baxter
We, the pop culture obsessed, are an extraordinarily opinionated bunch. We can be outspoken. We can be contentious. We can manage to disagree about almost anything. The discussion could be over television. One might say, “Breaking Bad is the best show of all time! It’s intense, beautifully shot, incredibly well-acted and has a gripping plot.” Someone else then says, “No, absolutely not. It’s The Wire. The Wire is the most realistic and heartbreaking, and it features amazingly intricate storytelling.” And yet another responds, “Game of Thrones is better than both of those! It has dragons and nudity!” This could be a conversation between friends out to dinner, strangers on message boards, or professional critics on Twitter. Or maybe, the conversation is about, say, movies vs. television. Your friend tells you that he rarely goes to the movies because he can instant-watch a whole series online and he can establish a much richer connection to it due to all of the time he spends consuming it. But you’re an avid moviegoer, so you lecture him about the magic that only a trip to the cinema can provide. These conversations can go round and round; you can argue passionately, debate rationally or discuss casually, with no clear winner. And that’s part of the fun of it, but there is one thing that we seem to agree on unanimously: We all think Netflix is pretty great.
Netflix is the home of just about any entertainment option that you can imagine. There are popular movies, acclaimed drama series, sitcoms, cartoons, documentaries, camp classics forgotten by time, miniseries and weird art films consciously designed not to appeal to the masses. Upstream Color directed by, written by and starring Shane Carruth firmly falls into the latter category. Upstream Color is the second film of his career; the first was a 2004 low budget science fiction film called Primer, which gained a cult following and the admiration of a legion of critics, despite its complex subject matter and reportedly-confounding story. Upstream Color hit film festivals to rave reviews in January and was released in theaters in March. It made less than half a million dollars at the box office, so not very many people saw it, but I can guarantee that it left quite the impression on those who did.
Upstream Color is the story of a woman, and later, a man, who are the victims of a thief, who drugs and manipulates them into unknowingly handing over their most valuable funds. However, what they don’t know is that in the process they have become infected by a parasite that gradually strips them of their identities. There is more to it than that, though. Kris, played by Amy Seimetz and Jeff (Carruth) are trapped in a vicious cycle connected to their parasite that involves people, animals and plants. But how do you break a cycle that you don’t even know you are in? And how do you do anything when you don’t know whom you even are anymore?
Shane Carruth has a reputation for making no effort to spoon-feed his audience. He doesn’t want you to feel comfortable, or even be aware of what’s going on most of the time; he’d rather you feel perplexed and maybe a little light-headed. It can unquestionably be deeply confusing and frustrating. But when all of the pieces start to come together, strange and abstract as they may be, it is an exponentially more rewarding experience; you feel like you’ve earned it. In this way, it is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s ambitious Tree of Life, a story that juxtaposed a middle-aged man’s growth and maturation throughout his life with that of the earth itself. Except, Upstream Color is stranger, and possibly, even more profound.
Upstream Color traffics in big themes, which definitely does not equate to relatable themes. It isn’t a story about coming-of-age, falling in love, (though there is an element of this present, but not in the traditional sense) or hard work and determination prevailing through adversity. People like these stories because they can empathize with the characters, but this is for those looking for something out of the ordinary, to say the least. Upstream Color is for curious souls, interested in thinking in philosophical terms, and asking existential questions about life and the world around us. How much control do we really have over our lives? Is there such thing as “free will”? Or are there unseen forces dictating the flow of events in our lives?
The questions Carruth asks aren’t particularly new or original – these existential queries are nearly as old as time itself – but what sets it apart is the manner in which he provokes them. Initially, the structure of Upstream Color appears as disjointed and uneven as the fractured pieces of the main character’s lives. However, by the end, you can understand how all of the parts are connected. On a second watch, it is all one complex organism; with each part and creative choice by Carruth serving it’s own unique purpose.
There are often extended periods of time without formal dialogue. When the characters do speak, it is in hushed tones. There is some exposition to establish the passing of time and the changes in relationships between the characters, but the film’s primary feature is its imagery. It is a story told mostly in stunning visuals, forcing the viewer to be observant to establish context. The score, composed by – you guessed it – Shane Carruth, is at once chilling and magical. It seems to suggest that the cycles of life can be vicious, but beautiful at the same time. Their nature, it appears, is neither entirely good nor entirely bad, nor the more cliché dichotomy of “good and evil,” they simply are. But the experiences of Kris and Jeff show that whether ill willed or not, their very existence can be extremely problematic and painful for those trapped inside.
Are we unknowingly the victims of cycles of nature that hinder our lives, or are we secretly dependent on them? No one can say for sure, but Upstream Color definitely opened my mind to the different possibilities.
Thanks again, Netflix.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.