Shane Carruth made an impressive debut in 2004 with “Primer,” which cost $7,000 and is surely the most complexly structured time-travel film ever made.
For that matter, it may be one of the most complexly structured films ever made, period. Carruth seemed to have fallen off the map shortly thereafter. Now, after nine years, his second feature, “Upstream Color,” opens this week.
There is no real protagonist here. Carruth opts for multiple points of view; sometimes the transitions are so sudden and the durations so short that the movie suggests an “objective” point of view. The closest thing to a central character is Kris (Amy Seimetz), a 30-ish on-the-go professional who is kidnapped one night from a club and forced to ingest some kind of worm. She goes into a trancelike state. Possibly her abductor has hypnotized her, but certainly the worm is at least part of the cause.
The next thing Kris knows, she’s sitting in her car, parked on the median strip of a highway. She has no idea how she got there, where she’s been (for days? for weeks?), and how and why the life she’s built has been torn away from her. We’ve seen it all transpire, but to her it’s simply missing time.
A year passes, and she has an entry-level job; the trauma of her blackout has damaged and enervated her, rendered her disengaged from the world, nearly catatonic. One day, a nervous young man named Jeff (played by Carruth, who also wrote, directed, co-edited, and composed the score) becomes obsessed with her. They fall in love, but Jeff has problems of his own. Or maybe not of his own, as the couple’s identities start to merge or bleed into each other. Has Jeff suffered the same sort of traumatizing intrusion?
In a lineup, fans of “Primer” could positively identify this as a Carruth film, but both the effect and the guiding aesthetic are very different. In an interview in 2004, Carruth told me that even though he was proud of the film’s narrative complexity, he was at the same time bothered by people like me focusing excessively on that element. For us, the intricate engineering of the plot tended to overwhelm the emotions of the deteriorating relationship it was constructed to support.
Despite Carruth’s intentions, “Primer” felt like a math problem, with a passing nod to human issues and feelings. “Upstream Color” seems designed to right this imbalance. There is another intricate mystery, but — partly thanks to Seimetz’s performance and, to a lesser extent, Carruth’s — we are more concerned about Kris and Jeff’s scrambled emotions and experiences than about the film’s puzzles.
The microbudget on which “Primer” was produced limited its visual range, so it relied almost entirely on dialogue and voiceover. Now working with a larger budget — though still very low, even by DIY indie standards — Carruth opts to concentrate on visual storytelling, keeping long stretches almost dialogue-free. The restless point of view, beautiful images and measured pace convey a drifty feel — the sort of mood almost never attempted in commercial American films.
There is a similar mood in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” and most of Terrence Malick’s work. Closer yet would be Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” and “Elephant,” but this tone is primarily the domain of European cinema. The best examples — Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, Claire Denis’ “Friday Night,” and Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Father and Son” — draw us into their own realities. Others — Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Le quattro volte” lethargically slogs to mind — simply try our patience. Perhaps the greatest affinities are with Chris Marker’s “La jetee” — where old-school science fiction plot ideas are less important than the longings of romance, life’s ineluctable paradoxes, and time lost and past.
Therein lies Carruth’s central shift from “Primer” to “Upstream Color.” The mysteries in the former, while difficult, did have answers; Carruth worked it all out on charts. But in the latter they are, by their nature, spiritual and impossible to solve; even Carruth can’t come up with them. There is no answer sheet for “Upstream Color.”
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).