Everything you were afraid to ask about "Upstream Color"

Pigs! Mental breakdowns! Nematodes! "Walden"! We answer all your questions about 2013's strangest film

Published April 12, 2013 11:30PM (EDT)

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that a science-fiction relationship drama depicting the life cycle of a neurotoxin-cum-immortal force that passes from nematode to human to pig and back again might get audiences confused.

What’s surprising is that it has them applauding.

“Upstream Color,” an at-first-blush incomprehensible movie by “Primer” filmmaker Shane Carruth, has earned qualified raves since its first screening at Sundance this year. Said Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy:

“The experience of watching the film, especially this first section, is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves[...] All this will seem profound to some and mean nothing to those who never got algebra.”

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir struck a similar note:

“I was immediately drawn in by the mysterious, meticulous world of vision, sound and sensation Carruth creates, with its blown-out digital color scheme and intimate focus, which simultaneously seems to be contemporary America and also an alien zone of disconnection and isolation.”

The film, which has been playing in New York for a week and begins its nationwide rollout today, is likely to earn many similar plaudits: admiration for Carruth’s technique in creating compelling images, tempered by confusion over just what, exactly, those images mean on a metaphorical or even minute-to-minute level. But close viewing of “Upstream Color” will reward even the reader who pulled a B-minus in middle-school algebra -- the mysteries are revealed, but simply at a pace that is a bit more laborious than the average film.

What follows is one reporter’s untangling of the mysteries of “Upstream Color,” informed by a recapitulation of the film itself and then public statements Carruth has made.

Spoiler-phobes ought to stop reading now -- with the caveat that knowing how the film works in advance might do the opposite of spoiling the movie. It might just save the diligent viewer a return trip to the theater to attempt to decode “Upstream Color’s" secrets.

* * *

First, let's recap what happens.

The movie begins with a fellow carrying a garbage bag overflowing with a paper chain. The chain is covered with inscrutable writing and the viewer can’t make it out before the bag is dumped and the gentleman begins scraping dirt off of plants at a nursery, looking for small maggots.

The fellow’s work with the plants is intercut with a pair of teens who drink a liquid and immediately start fighting in intense unison; each pitch one throws is caught by the other. It looks more like a dance than it does a fight -- the pair are entirely focused on one another. The older fellow is brewing a liquid by straining liquid over the maggots he has found as a third teen drinks the fluid and has the same reaction.

The action of the film begins in earnest once the older fellow -- a small-time con artist -- forces the maggoty water upon a woman at a bar using the sort of face mask used to give oxygen at a hospital. We’ve, immediately prior, seen this woman hard at work analyzing special-effects work in a film, but, once he’s taken her back to her home, her entire demeanor has changed. Kris, the woman, is intently focused on her captor but glassy-eyed.

The captor, in some of his first words to Kris, instructs her that his head “is made of the same material as the sun.” We see her blanch -- and we see her face illuminated by the sort of bright, almost painful light of a summer noon with no shade. We’re seeing the world through her brainwashed eyes, through the scrim of intoxication by the sort of life forms her captor has been using to ensure close focus and credulity.

The captor feeds her water, which he calls “a wall protecting you from hunger and fatigue. It extends to the sky. Each drink is better than the last.” In order to continue obtaining this water -- which will sustain Kris through an apparent day-long jag without food or rest -- Kris must make a paper chain, with each link covered in writing copied from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” After adding each link, she also stacks checkers in complicated patterns. The unnamed man convinces Kris that her mother is being held hostage -- not a terribly hard feat, considering the mutability of her mind. She borrows (at least $15,500, from the figures her captor lists on-screen, but quite possibly much more) against the equity of her house from various banks, reciting in a staccato monotone what, exactly, the tellers told her. At this point, she's been been mentally broken; she sits, gazing, at a painting of a deer.

The spell is broken when her captor tells her the water has lost its power; she immediately gorges on food from her refrigerator and goes to sleep. When she awakes, nematodes are writhing under her skin and she stabs herself repeatedly; she’s finally drawn to a meadow where a new character dresses her wounds and, after shaving and incising a living pig, surgically inserts the worm from Kris into a pig. After the procedure, the pig scurries away into a pen.

Kris enters a white room where she is among other deadened, motionless, almost zombie-like people. She tests a faucet and stares at it blankly. She wakes up on a highway embankment, looking at her hands as though for the first time, then realizing her wounds. She almost calls 911, but when seeing just what sort of inexplicable damage has been wrought to her home and to her life, she holds off, instead mopping her own blood off the floor. She doesn’t recollect having taken out loans, fighting her bank when her credit card is declined. She claims that the signatures on the loans against her house aren’t even her handwriting. She’s escorted out of her office by security after she claims she had the flu and was too sick to call in during her long absence.

When next we see Kris, she’s cut her hair; she meets a persistent fellow on the train who insists that they go out, and, when they finally do, she presents him with two bottles of what we can presume are psychiatric drugs. “I was diagnosed about a year ago,” she tells him. Though she appears to presume this’ll scare him off, it only makes him more ardent. As the pair get closer, both exhibit addictive, rapt behaviors; Kris picks up rocks from the bottom of a pool, while Jeff (played by Carruth himself) sorts through colored stones while seated at a hotel bar.

Jeff and Kris are both prone to freeze in intense concentration -- for instance, Jeff, who works in a hotel, stops and gazes at a postage meter as Kris, in her own office as a small-time functionary at a print shop, gazes at a printer, then a sewing machine. Their mental freeze is intercut with the fellow in the field, whom the film’s credits call the Sampler (he’s the one who treated Kris and the pig). He’s creating and broadcasting music by running a rasp over a metal tube, or recording the sound of a stream. When Kris breaks free and snaps the cord of the sewing machine, the music overlaying her and Jeff’s trance stops, and the Sampler suddenly goes from rambling through the wilderness to wandering the city, observing various frozen-in-place people at close range -- a woman in front of a store woman, for instance. He ends up observing Kris and Jeff in a bare lunchroom, but they cannot see him.

The romance between Jeff and Kris is all the viewer can hold onto, here -- in a subway ride, Jeff confesses that he’s divorced, and that a substance problem is to blame. “All the savings, all the plans, are gone -- and I’m holed up in some hotel.” As the two get into bed, a raised scar is visible on Jeff’s ankle. The pair’s bed jumps to a field, with hungry pigs feeding all around them, and then she makes eggs back at home.

When Kris believes she is pregnant, the movie becomes a sort of horror film, rather than a romance with overlay of bucolic evil; her doctors tell her she cannot possibly be pregnant, due to pelvic trauma. Jeff feels phantom side pain and Kris undergoes surgery. The doctors believe she is a survivor of stage three endometrial cancer. Once again, Kris feels she is losing her mind, and she has become bonded with Jeff, if not quite so much as she believes. After her surgery, they begin telling one another stories from their childhoods. All the stories are the same, and they fight over who experienced what.

Why did Kris believe she was pregnant? Well, the pig Kris bonded with has given birth and the farmer fellow who’s been in the city and the field captures her and her babies. Kris, in sympathy, punches through three windows; Jeff drops papers into the atrium of the hotel he works at and fights two co-workers. They find one another and drive home, where they barricade themselves into the bathroom and nestle in the bath.

Two pigs, nestled, are caught onscreen as the bag they are in sinks to the bottom of a stream. Their corpses decompose and a deep blue liquid is shown overwhelming a reddish capillary system; flowers grow on the stream bank and turn blue. Women pick and pot them and maggots crawl through the soil.

The film winds its way to an end as Kris and Jeff continue to pair-bond; he discovers her habit of picking up stones from a pool while reciting lines from “Walden,” and he joins her, screaming back Thoreau’s writing.

The film’s final words spoken aloud are “for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky,” and as Kris dives back underwater, she grabs onto a chain of flowers that are yellow. Each time she touches them, she flashes back to her imprisonment; eventually, Kris and Jeff make their way back to the field where she was operated upon. She shoots the Sampler and then finds a record of all the others like her. She sends them each a copy of “Walden” in the mail and we’re shown their slow realization of something awry as they open their package. They converge on the field, which we’ve learned is called Quinoa Valley, and the film ends as Kris strokes a piglet. The piglet appears to smile. Kris looks at peace.

* * *

So what does it all mean?

Let’s start at the literal level. We can presume that Kris and Jeff underwent a similar experience, from the congruence between what we see of Kris’ life and what we hear of Jeff’s. Both cannot explain their sudden appearance in a new location in any other terms than mental illness or substance abuse that seems mysterious even to them throughout the film. Both bear knife scars, and both are drawn to the work of Thoreau and to obsessive organizing of items in inscrutable patterns. There is no one else but Jeff who could understand Kris, and vice versa.

An eternal life force prompted the breakdown of Kris and Jeff -- it was drawn from nematodes in the soil of plants, implanted in them, passed on to pigs, and leached into the water that nourishes plants. It operated cyclically. However, the cycle did not entirely destroy the humans it affected -- it also enabled them to find and relate to one another. Though the pair met “by chance” on a train, Jeff’s persistence in asking out Kris, and her eventual consent despite her deep trauma, feels more than a meet-cute. Their ability to find one another at moments of terror and, ultimately, to bring one another towards peace is the product of their being part of an organism that isn’t entirely malevolent.

Carruth, in an interview with IndieWire, explained that the romance cannot exist in “Upstream Color” without the lengthy section depicting Kris’ breakdown. “[T]here's only a small part of it that's their relationship, some of the romanticism is Kris and her whole story of being broken down and there being some resolution -- it's sort of a comedy of errors and it becomes more of a heart-of-darkness going upstream to solve the problem.”

Asked if the film is a “metaphorical parallel” with falling in love, Carruth said: Well, [the two characters are] being forced together by off-screen forces -- the pigs are coming together -- but there's a real tension because it's not happening organically. [...] I just felt like there would be a lot of tension in that constant poking from off-screen that's pushing you toward something.”

The inorganic force could, then, be metaphorical. “[T]here's only one way to view this film: in a way where all the pieces make sense,” Carruth told The Awl. As for whether the surrealities of the film actually happen to Kris and Jeff, Carruth’s longwinded answer sheds little light: “Well, I would say yes. But it's because the plot itself is about being affected from or observing at a distance. [...] But from a subtextual perspective, it almost doesn't matter. This is Heart of Darkness, this is going upriver to solve the problem in some way, put an end to the thing or person who's been found responsible.”

The use of “Walden” seems to be the key to the film -- the pigs, for instance, are ancillary, mere symbols of the natural world that, as a Film School Rejects review indicates, could as well be “chinchillas.” The book sings the praises of a stripped-down existence in a state of nature, whereby one can question received ideas about society; both Jeff and Kris have experienced extreme reprisals for actions outside their control. Whether or not Quinoa Valley actually exists, they’re in a pastoralia of the mind, and one that ultimately enriches them.

The Sampler created Kris’ problems, as DJ Pangburn wrote on Medium -- but her killing him ultimately is an ambiguous act. Said Carruth: “The Sampler isn't meant to be necessarily God, but he represents that thing, whether that's a good or bad thing or even real, and so to track him down and blame him and punish him -- it's one of the things that I think is subversive about the film. [...] the text of the story means I would hope somebody would go, ‘wait, why is he a bad guy? He didn't do anything, what's going on there?’”

If the Sampler cannot be blamed for Kris’ problems, “forces beyond her control” seems an unsatisfying explanation for the degradation she undergoes. Carruth’s ambiguity as to whether or not Kris actually underwent specific traumas -- all that matters is that she feels she did -- frees the audience from his belief that there’s only one workable interpretation. There can’t be one possible interpretation if we’re shown events whose creator doesn’t quite know or care if they happened.

The only way the events could have happened-and-not-happened is if they happened within the mind of Kris -- an explanation given credence by the way we’re shown the back of her head staring at the deer painting, or how her captor’s face shines like the sun for us, too. (This interpretation contradicts Carruth’s claim that “we are not in [characters’] heads, but we are intimate with their experience and I think that's what I’m trying to get to,” but the claim itself is so airy as to be rendered less than useful.) We are inside her mind during the purported drugging. And so, too, are we in her mind as she has endless, recursive dialogues with Jeff about their childhoods, and as she shoots the Sampler.

Here is Carruth, speaking to IndieWire about his faith that everything, not merely within his film but in life, can be explained:

“In the natural world they’re starting to recognize that there are these relationships that are happening where these miniature organisms are infecting the brains of flies and ants and other animals and causing in them behavior that is counterintuitive: making an ant climb to the top of a tree and throw itself off and so all the ants collect in a pile at the bottom and a fungus devours them. And nobody would have expected this to happen because you would have needed to be able to focus on what’s in the brain of an ant to explain the behavior. We're just learning about that -- who knows what else we're learning about? There are so many question marks when it comes to human behavior and even biological behavior.

“Upstream Color,” about one woman’s battle against inexplicable and powerful forces, constructs a hypothesis to explain the inexplicable. Occam’s Razor would indicate that in the absence of solid proof, there is no maggot, there is no nematode under Kris’ skin. The only people she interacts with and who have weight in the world, the only people she sees that others can see, are the employers and bank functionaries who torment her after her initial breakdown and Jeff.

Kris and Jeff bring one another out of a struggle that they invent their own language for. For Kris and Jeff, the idea that miniature organisms have altered them provides comfort and the possibility of closure. “Upstream Color” is a story about finding oneself after the sort of tragedy far more common than nematode infection, after a breakdown (let’s not forget Thoreau’s emotional lability), and about cordoning that tragedy into a corner of one’s imagination, making it seem unreal so that it cannot happen again in the absence of a satisfying explanation.

By Daniel D'Addario

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