Upstream Color

Find your spirit piglet
★★★
☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Shane Carruth
Starring: 
Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
The Setup: 
Man and woman find romance post-worm mind-control trauma.
Discussion: 

So I just re-watched Primer, and in looking to see what that writer-director had done in the meantime, was delighted to find that he hadn't done anything I had missed, but his first film since then was just about to come out. And then it started getting really good reviews, especially for a film that makes no sense. So I was super-psyched to see it, and now I have! And yup, it was decent, if a trifle too long. Now what to look forward to?

One knows going in here that you're not going to get too much help in the sense-making department, which is a crucial understanding to enter on. We open with two teen boys making tea from a maggotty grub that lives in the plants whose leaves emit this blue substance. Then we meet this guy who seems to be some kind of drug dealer, who opens a capsule and puts a grub inside. In here the edits are pretty fast and evocative. He is hanging out by the restrooms in a restaurant when he meets Kris, and there's an excellent moment when everything is quiet, then the sound suddenly explodes as Kris is pulled out into a rainstorm, and a grub forcibly put down her throat. Then the dealer hangs out with her, and she seems to be under some sort of mind control to him. Then he makes her give him all of her money and take out a loan and give him the money. She spends her days copying passages of Walden, then rolling that paper into a strip, taping the strip together to make a ring, and making a chain of these paper rings. I see, under mind control the victims become conceptual artists!

Soon Kris is laying around with worms crawling underneath her skin, and she starts to try to cut them out. Meanwhile there's another guy, listed in the credits as "The Sampler," who lives in a trailer and records numerous sounds, broadcasting some of them underground, which makes worms come up. He comes across Kris, and sees what her problem is, and performs a procedure that uses a piglet to pull the worm out of Kris, and apparently put the worm into the piglet. You may be confused, but at least you'll have a cute piglet to look at (and there are more to come). Soon Kris awakens in the median of a highway, mind now cleared, and goes home to find her place a mess, all her money gone, and that she opened a loan without her knowledge. She soon finds a job at a sign printing shop.

On a commuter train, she meets writer-director Shane Carruth as Jeff. He likes her, and pursues her, and soon they're hanging out/dating, as soon enough we discover that he was also a victim of worm-based identity theft, and lost his money and his job, and is now in a strange job requiring him to live in a hotel. In here is a section in which we hear the Sampler going out and recording many different sounds. Jeff and Kris grow closer and closer.

SPOILERS > > >
So soon Kris and Jeff are arguing over whose memories are whose, because they both remember the same things. Then there's a whole section of Kris installing grommets into signs, and this thing I didn't understand where Jeff is being menaced by guys at work, throws a box of paperwork off a balcony, and fighting with a guy. Eventually they are entranced by certain sounds, and Jeff goes to a record store and finds CDs of new agey sound-music (I guess) and they recognize the sounds, and start wondering about the company that released the discs.

Meanwhile, the Sampler is upset because something is happening to his cute piglets. Some of them have tried to escape, which they never had before. He puts them all in a bag and throws them in a river. Meanwhile, Jeff and Kris, perhaps sensing the porcine peril, feel threatened and upset and hole up in the bathtub, in the image you see on the poster. We see the bag float down the river and become ensnared in the roots of a tree that has white orchids growing beneath it. The pigs are dead, and little grubs come out and go up into the roots, and soon the orchids have turned blue. Then two women come, take the plants, and bag them up to sell. Soon after we have a return of the two boys from the beginning who made tea from the grubs.

Then Kris is obsessively going to the deep end of a pool, and picking up rocks she finds there, and bringing them one by one to the side. When she comes up, she is babbling, and Jeff determines that she's actually reciting passages from Walden. Then Jeff sees the Sampler in his office, and shoots him. Then they are suddenly at the Sampler's farm, where they find a bunch of his files, presumably all the people he has de-wormed. Jeff sends all of those people copies of Walden, and soon they're all there on the farm, each with their own cute piglet. The last shot is of Kris communing with her piglet. I want a cute piglet to commune with! They're so sweeeeet.

So, before we leave the spoilers, here's the best I can piece it together: The worms apparently grow in dead pigs and their grubs live in the roots of orchids. The drug dealer uses them to control people's minds and drain them of their money. The Sampler removes the worms and put them into pigs, and I have a suspicion that he is somehow in league with the drug dealer. The people who have hosted the worms have some sort of collective, shared consciousness. At the end, Kris and Jeff get them all together so they can commune with their piglets and figure out what happened to them.
< < < SPOILERS END

I was super into it for the first hour. The editing is quick, and smart, and it's not at all hard to follow. Carruth cuts out some of the narrative connective tissue we're used to, but if you see Kris at a bank saying "but I DIDN'T sign this loan," then cut to her looking at printouts from a security cam, showing her at the bank, you know what happened. Similarly when they say "We need a car" and we next see them in a car with the price written on the windshield. You put together what happened, and it's not so hard and keeps you engaged. And the music and editing are dreamy and the film engaging, and you feel like you have enough of a sense of what is happening to stay focused.

It was in the final third that I started to lose track, and with it soon followed interest. And for the last fifteen minutes I really just wanted it to end. The whole rocks in the pool thing was impenetrable, and the farm thing, and it was just going on, and I stopped caring. With Primer, the time travel was chopping up the narrative, for the characters and for us, and as such, not making sense made sense. Here, there's no real reason for this not to make sense, aside from that Carruth doesn't feel like it. Or the characters are much more at sea by the end than it seems, but even so, I suspect they have conversations where they discuss what they do know, or why they're doing what they're doing, and Carruth isn't showing us those. So you begin to suspect that it isn't making sense as kind of a gimmick.

And emotionally? The film does a good job of keeping one engaged, and in tune with Kris' dislocation, and the romance with Jeff actually manages to be pretty romantic. I was happily along for the ride, but with the inability to make sense of it by the end went the emotional interest as well. My friend and I discussed it for a bit after dinner, but soon lost interest, and both suspected maybe there's not all that much to figure out anyway. So ultimately, I'm all for Carruth making more films, and I'll happily see them, and he seems to be very talented (and has nothing to apologize for as an actor, either), but ultimately this movie didn't leave me with all that much and I was definitely hoping for more.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, and like brain-puzzler movies, but... still...