A man collects little maggots from a garden and deposits them into capsules. Kids ride bikes and practice some kind of martial art. The light is softly dazzling and the ambient soundtrack quietly rapturous. We are enveloped by the rhythmical array of images and sounds almost devoid of context. Stripped down dialogue conveys the barest minimum of exposition. The patterns beguile. What’s going on? Impossible to tell, at least at this point, but already you’re snared by the current of Upstream Color, the second feature from Shane Carruth, whose equally baffling-fascinating debut, a very talky tale of time travel entitled Primer, made such an impression nine years back.
Baffling, yet not for lack of drama. A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is abducted, drugged so as to render her a puppet, or living zombie. Her abductor tells her that his head is a sun, that the water is holy, that there is a wall protecting her from hunger and fatigue—a diet of ice cubes will do for now. The abductor has Kris copy out parts of Thoreau’s Walden. Could this whole creepy campaign be some elaborate act of civil disobedience? After Thoreau, he has Kris signing cheques. When she snaps out of her abductor’s spell, Kris is alone, traumatized to the point of self-mutilation, with no idea what happened to her.
What clues can we follow? How about those scenes at some camp hospital, an anesthetized pig, speakers playing oceanic whoomphs? The surgeon who also collects nature sounds, a sort of po-faced Judge Reinhold-type who, as Upstream Color flows along, seems to be everywhere, listening, observing, recording, getting close to people without touching. Before the abduction, Kris worked for a post-production house of some sort. Is there some connection between what she did and what the mystery man is gleaning with his recording devices? Beats me. But I can assure you that all of these scenes inhabit the same world, one that seems to validate conspiracy theorists, one conjured with immense craft and cryptic intelligence by Carruth, who not only wrote, directed and produced the film, but also cut it, shot it, composed the music, and acts in the film, as Jeff, another abduction victim who eventually meets Kris, at which point Upstream Color becomes a very peculiar sort of love story about damaged crazy people who have no idea as to why they’re damaged or crazy. Kris and Jeff are even more in the dark that those of watching this film, and both Seimetz and Carruth are very good at embodying this inexplicable panic that requires layers of denial to endure.
The hand that attempts to control the psyches of the characters in Upstream Color remains essentially mysterious throughout, though we do gradually see and hear enough to get some idea as to the scale of this elusive Caligari-figure’s powers. The film is never less than captivating, at times it’s nerve-wracking. The music and editing schemes feel like the work of a more sinister Terrence Malick, with montage being used to accentuate motion, and place us in the thick of the characters’ plight. We leave the film with an only slightly better idea as to what’s going on than when we entered, but I predict a good number of you will want to come back for a second go-round, just to see if the penny ever drops. Or if the unseen hand is really that of Carruth.