A confession: I eventually had to abandon Upstream Color with 30 minutes left to go. Look, you can bombard me with as much abstract and bizarre imagery as you want, but without a tether or reason to care about the abstract oddities, I will not care or invest my brain power and empathy into it.
Puzzle box movies are something of a mixed bag for me, as I can easily find many of them more in love with their own peculiarity and denseness than being actually involving or engaging pieces of art. Upstream Color is in love with its own impenetrability and vagueness that you could argue that this film is about anything at all. Or, it’s actually not about anything but its own disorienting schisms of time, place, narrative, and character.
It’s damn ambitious, I’ll give it that, but I just didn’t care. The first section intrigued me where Amy Seimetz’s character is kidnapped, forced to swallow a mind-controlling maggot creature, undergoes a transplant with a pig, and performs a series of bizarre actions leaving her destitute and battered. Then we skip forward a year, Shane Carruth, not content merely to be a one-man production house on this film, also stars as a love interest. It is here that I stopped caring at quickly accelerating pace. Their love story just didn’t interest me, and the elliptical connections to the first half never paid off despite the obvious bread crumbs.
There’s beauty to be found here, and a commendable sense of visual film-making but an antiseptic flavor overpowers everything. Upstream Color doesn’t merely keep you at an arm’s length, but keeps you a distance, confuses you, and then smiles at you with a sense of unearned importance. It doesn’t help that I’m getting seriously tired of straight, middle-class white male angst and romantic troubles overpowering everything. Imagine if we had just stayed with Seimetz’s character alone throughout the journey as she’s by far the more interesting and dynamic personality, both as written and as performed. I wonder if Carruth can make a passionate film and not merely a series of calling card projects. He seems talented enough, so I wouldn’t entirely write him off.