I saw 'Upstream Color' at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was one of the festival's hottest tickets. Shane Carruth, writer and director of indie/cult classic hit 'Primer,' had finally come off his seven year hiatus. Everyone wanted to see what he was going to do next. He didn't disappoint.
'Upstream Color' is a puzzling array of stunning images pieced together with limited dialogue, and collectively glued by one of the most immersive soundscapes I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. But if you asked me what the movie is about, I'd be at a loss.
It's a fragmented story structure. Like Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life,' 'Upstream Color' doesn't necessarily follow a linear storyline. It jumps around in time and space, but does have some semblance of moving forward toward an end goal.
Carruth immediately sucks you into his movie by showing us a daring, unorthodox kidnapping. A man attacks a young woman, drags her into an alley, and forces a worm inside her body through her mouth. Yes, a worm. It looks like a maggot, but you'll soon find out this is no ordinary maggot. The worm soon takes hold of the woman. She appears completely catatonic. She obeys whatever orders the man gives. She's helpless.
The woman's name is Kris (Amy Seimetz). She's fallen prey to the Thief (Thiago Martins). He's ordered her to clean out her bank accounts. She signs everything she owns over to him. All the while he has her reading Walden, making paper chains, and drinking gallons of water.
One of the many things that makes 'Upstream Color' different from most movies out there is the complete lack of exposition. We're left to our own devices to figure out what's happening, why it's happening, and how everything relates.
At some point the worm is taken from Kris' body and put into a pig. A link is made. Part of her consciousness (maybe) has transferred to the pig. A hole in her life is left from her experience with the Thief. She soon comes in contact with Jeff (Carruth) who seems to be having some of the same problems. Are the two meant to find each other? Have the both been victims of the Thief?
Carruth paints a complicated picture here. A story that involves the cycle of life; how people interact with one another; and feelings that we can't quite explain, but are there. It's a deeply philosophical tale. One that is left purposefully ambiguous and vague. It doesn't help matters that Carruth himself had a difficult time nailing down the story's endgame when he led a Q&A after the credits rolled. He seemed like he was still processing his own work, like it was a living, breathing, changing thing that he wasn't sure about.
As soon as I walked out of the Sundance screening I felt like I needed to watch it again. There's a lot to digest, but I had a feeling it wasn't overly complex. It's a movie that requires repeat viewings, and will spark discussion with whomever you watch it. It's a completely unique experience though. Carruth has crafted a beautiful movie that's pieced together with a flurry of images and a cacophony of elaborate sound. It's one of my favorite movies of this year, even if I couldn't exactly tell you what it means.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Carruth is releasing this Blu-ray independently. It comes in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. The discs are housed in a nice tri-fold. The disc is 25GBs.
Having seen the movie during its festival run, I can attest that the video presentation mirrors what it looked like on the big screen. When watching it at Sundance it was easy to point out the drawbacks of digital filming. While some scenes appeared crisp, vivid, and full of detail, there were other moments where clarity lacked and artifacts crept in.
First, we'll talk about the good. Daytime scenes are beautifully rendered. Carruth's ultra-close macro shots are full of exquisite detail. Close-ups on hands reveal the tiny lines we all have in our palms. Shots of dirt clumps feature miniscule individual granules. The macro photography is really beautiful here. Color is extremely vivid. The blue dust of the plants leaps off the screen. The rest of the movie is bathed in a sterile color scheme.
Unfortunately, one of the cons of low budget digital photography rears its head during the darker parts of the movie. Banding is a real and frequent factor here. It shows up on the edges of shadows and gradients. It's almost impossible not to notice the frequent banding that persists throughout the entire movie. I noticed the banding when I saw the movie at Sundance, but it appears a little more distinct here. Almost like compression is playing a factor. For example, notice the darker areas in the scene where Kris is asked to drink water while the Thief's face appears as a bright sun-like orb. There's some pretty egregious banding in that scene, along with many others. Black areas take on a bluish tint, creating a purple-like sheen that distracts during nighttime scenes.
This is what I said when I discussed the movie for The Bonus View: "On a side note, when/if this comes out on Blu-ray, it better have a demo-quality audio mix with as many channels as humanly possible. Done right, this film will sound better than any action movie could ever have dreamed."
Truthfully, this was one of the most immersive audio experiences I've ever had in a theater. The sound mix was a character in its own right. For the most part, that experience is recreated on this Blu-ray.
The bass is overwhelmingly awesome. I remember the deep whooshing in the theater gave me this feeling of great unease. It does the same here. Carruth's original sound is beautifully constructed. It's so different and jarring that it deserves to be heard as loud as possible. Although, this mix has a tough time giving us dialogue with the same weight. The dialogue often gets lost in the score. I finally turned on my subtitles just so I was sure I didn't miss anything. There are a lot of whispers here and there, which are competing with heavy, throbbing bass. More often than not the LFE wins out.
The rear channels are full of life. This is a completely immersive experience as far as ambiance goes. A lot of thought has gone into how the audio mix affects the overall feel of the film. Surround sound adds immensely to that.
Note: There are some noticeable audio sync issues with the movie, however, I was able to line the sound back up to where it was supposed to be by adjusting my A/V Sync feature on my receiver.
Sadly, there are no special features provided save for a couple trailers. I would've given anything for a commentary or a making-of featurette. Alas, Carruth remains mysterious and doesn't give us anything to go on in the way of bonus features.
There's something beautifully enigmatic about Carruth's film. It demands more than one viewing. It challenges its audience to think and surmise. There aren't any easy answers here. There aren't even any wrong ones perhaps. The entire movie and its themes are open to interpretation and Carruth welcomes it. During his Q&A he was reluctant to pin down what the movie was about exactly. Without an ounce of exposition in the way of a character telling us what's going on, we're left up to our own devices. Carruth certainly has an original way of telling a story, and 'Upstream Color' showcases every bit of his unique talent. The video is a little troubled, but the audio is as immersive as I remember it being. Even without a single special feature, 'Upstream Color' is still recommended.