“Upstream Color” is as enigmatic as filmmaking gets — not in a casual way, but determinedly, even willfully. Being completely understood at first glance is not on creator Shane Carruth’s agenda, but while this may sound upsetting, it turns out to be quite the opposite.
Carruth, whose cult favorite “Primer” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004, is unwavering about telling his stories his own particular way, and he’s so good at it that he pins us to our seats even when we’re not exactly sure what’s going on. Maybe because we’re not exactly sure what’s going on.
For to watch the haunting, disturbing “Upstream Color” is to feel like you’re inside not one of your own dreams but someone else’s, a dream that’s both compelling and unnerving in ways you can’t put your finger on. Part science fiction scare movie, part offbeat romance, part completely unclassifiable, “Color” is also one-man filmmaking of a remarkable sort.
Carruth is the film’s writer-director-producer, the cinematographer, the composer of the score, one of the editors and one of the camera operators — as well as being the costar. If the man ever allowed himself a sick day, it’s a safe bet production would shut down.
Yet the key thing about “Upstream Color” is not that Carruth does all those things, but that he does them well. His film holds us in its grasp because he’s an exceptional visual creator, especially adept at making images that know how to work on our subconscious. As someone who’s said he hates even the idea of a synopsis, Carruth’s goal is to be effective just outside our rational understanding. He wants us not to know but to feel.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Upstream Color” is that while its plot is easy to outline in the broadest sense, its details absolutely reject conventional narrative explanation. When asked about plot specifics during an audience session after the film’s Sundance premiere, Carruth not only didn’t provide them, he seemed at a loss as to why anybody would even want to know.
“Upstream Color’s” first part is its most flat-out unnerving and easiest to follow once you realize that what you’re watching is a science-fictionish scam involving a kind of larva that lives in colorful orchids found, yes, way upstream. That larva finds its way into the hands of a thief (Thiago Martins) who forces a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz), an all-business film production person, to ingest it against her will.
That larva, as it turns out, contains a potent mind control substance that robs victims of every shred of independent will and resistance. When the thief tells Kris she can’t look directly at him because his head is made of the same material as the sun, she believes him. When he tells her to sell her house and transfer all the funds to him, she does that as well.
Once the thief leaves Kris, she notices that the larva has turned into a worm that can’t find a way to leave her body. At this point an inscrutable character called the sampler (Andrew Sensenig) enters the picture.
The sampler creates a wave of electronic sound that, Count Dracula-like, draws Kris to a remote farm where the worm inside her is elaborately drawn out and surgically deposited in a pig, which continues to be psychically connected to her. This is as out-there as it sounds, but Carruth’s skill makes it undeniably gripping as well.
It’s at this point that Jeff, the character played by the director, enters the film. He spies Kris, now a haunted, barely functional version of her former self, on a commuter train and reaches out to her.
Himself a mysterious person who may or may not have gone through a similar experience, Jeff has secrets of his own. Still, feeling a kinship with Kris, he attempts to begin a relationship with her that he hopes will help make them both whole.
This rudimentary synopsis of the setup of “Upstream Color” omits some of the film’s most baffling elements, like the central place Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” plays in the narrative or why the man known as the sampler materializes in people’s lives. These points can be maddening, but only if you let them. Alternately, you can decide to suspend the old rules and enjoy the delicious feeling of exploring uncharted territory with an enigmatic but expert guide. You could do a whole lot worse.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset, West Hollywood; Laemmle’s Monica, Santa Monica; Playhouse 7, Pasadena