Upstream Color

A woman sits at a table, making paper chains. She has a worm inside her; the man who put it there is asleep in her bed. He’s halfway through taking everything she has. When she wakes up again after the worm (in a process so surreal it’s better experienced than described), her life is broken.. A man who carries the same wounds, in every sense, sees her on a train. He says hello.

That each of these moments is almost unbearably tense is part of the art of Upstream Color; that it stays that tense until literally its last minute is because of what Upstream Color is trying to do.

Upstream Color is a surreal and nonlinear narrative, a mosaic of quick cuts that disorient, reframe, and refocus the story one beat at a time. It’s a sweeping myth about the world’s interconnectedness; it’s a dark sci-fi literalization of violation; it’s about trying to escape a cycle of suffering; it’s about the stuttering progress of the relationship between two damaged people. (Their first big fight, laid out in circular quick-cuts, is one of the most deft impressions of how that feels that I’ve ever seen onscreen.)

Though much of the movie deliberately skirts concrete explanations or concepts, the bare bones of the plot are these: a worm exists, and its supernatural powers involve some level of connectedness – or violent control. Kris (the magnetic Amy Seimetz) is attacked by a man who injects her with one; the film’s first half-hour is an uncomfortable, even violative blow-by-blow of his manipulation. The rest of the film is Kris trying to put her life back together, if such a thing is even possible when something so inexplicable has happened, and has left ghost impressions across her consciousness.

And the story is decidedly hers; though her involvement with Jeff is central, and we see some of the same glimpses into his psyche as hers, the movie knows that hers was the violation we suffered, and hers is the fight to come back from it.

Though it’s a lovely film – artfully shot and unsettlingly, memorably scored – it is, at times, not an easy film to watch. The first thirty minutes are unrelenting; after that their world remains largely inexplicable – though the audience knows more than the characters do, the pieces are so fragmented that their terror keeps its in medias res urgency (at their nadir, they race home and prepare for an onslaught that’s almost worse for not coming).

As they start to recognize the patterns of what’s happening, and try to turn knowledge into action (and action, it’s hoped, into closure), the tone of the film itself irises out into a more mythic story – so broadly painted that the last half hour of the film has no dialogue at all. It’s to the credit of director/writer/star Shane Carruth that this dramatic shift doesn’t abandon the characters at its center, spiraling out into a universal story of trying to overcome ghosts while remaining tightly sympathetic to Kris; the movie’s last image is of her happiness.

It’s necessary to tell you that because so much of what comes before it is difficult; though the movie avoids pinning down its specifics, it is a story about trying to overcome violation and trauma in a world that reminds you every day in a thousand tiny ways of things you fear without having a name for, and it shows – painfully, minutely – how those tiny things can shred a life. Much of the world of Upstream Color is connected; this movie presents that as horrible, alienating, malicious, as often as it does enlightening. And though there are easy metaphors to be found in the movie’s setup and speculative elements, and are treated with painstaking honesty, not all of it overlays clean; some things are left undefined, some things left behind, and those who find their happiness still do so at a cost. But rare is the movie in which the metaphorical and the literal coexist so well; rare is a concept movie that follows its central characters with such minute understanding.

Upstream Color is an outstanding, astounding, sometimes overwhelming movie. But it’s a powerful one, and, at last, maybe a beautiful one.

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