Upstream Color (2013)


I remember watching Shane Caruth’s first film Primer (2004) years ago. I fell asleep midway through it. Not that it was boring. It was just that my brain went on auto-shutdown after failing to follow the plot multiple times. If I remember correctly, I fast forwarded it to the end hoping I’d get some answers but I didn’t.

You’re probably thinking, why would someone do that? Skip to the ending to figure out the whole story? Well, don’t ask me, I don’t know why I did either. Maybe, I was thinking it would be like those movies where there would be flashbacks near end to explain the whole thing?

That’s the reason I wasn’t really excited when Carruth’s next film, Upstream Color came out in 2013. Even when it ended up in many year-end lists later. Shane Carruth’s movies have a difficulty level of Calculus and maybe, for some people, just as boring.

Still, I gave it a try the other night without reading reviews, plot synopsis or what it is about. And I was surprised that it didn’t give me same brain-shutting difficulty as Primer did. If Primer was like solving complex math equations, Upstream Color is more like attending a Biology class.

It’s probably less challenging than Primer. Instead of complex plot and parallel timelines to be solved, Upstream Color offers a story about two people drawn to each other, for reasons unknown to them. And the movie is about them figuring out their past and them trying to break free from whatever it is the enslaves them.

Following these two broken people is a lot easier than trying to follow two people who goes in and out of a box (which happens to be a functioning time machine) and the complicated timelines that they create. And I think the score helps as well. For me, this movie makes Shane Carruth the Johnny Greenwood indie equivalent.

While the story is somewhat easy to follow, Carruth’s filmmaking and storytelling style may prompt others to say that this is as interesting as “watching paint dry.” It’s not for everyone. Carruth’s storytelling isn’t what most people would describe as—for lack of a better word—conventional. Some critics even compared his style with that of another filmmaker—Terrence Malick, particularly with his movie The Tree of Life.

One review says Upstream Color is a “head-scratching science fiction drama.” It’s metaphorical, maybe philosophical as well.

The title is probably a reference to the beautiful blue orchids in the movie that grow near a stream. The same little blue orchids from which the Thief gets this thing he uses to manipulate his victims. We tend to like things of beauty, sometimes unaware of their nefarious origins. Where those orchids get their blue pigment, I am not going to disclose here. While Shane Carruth dispels those that say that the movie is really about Capitalism, my confirmation-biased reading of it is that it is about Capitalism.

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