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'Upstream Colour' review: Shane Carruth's mesmerising comeback

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Released on Friday, Aug 30 2013

Director: Shane Carruth; Screenwriter Shane Carruth; Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins; Running time: 96 mins; Certificate: 12A


Shane Carruth made a splash in independent cinema back in 2004 with his directorial debut Primer, a mind-bendingly complex time travel drama concerned as much with the ethical dilemmas of temporal displacement as the technological breakthrough itself. After that Carruth dropped off the map. Though many thought he was becoming a Terrence Malick-like reclusive figure, the filmmaker was in fact trying to launch his ambitious follow-up A Topiary. The project fizzled despite high-profile support from Steven Soderbergh, but Carruth was undeterred. He's returned almost a decade on from the Primer release with Upstream Colour.

The one-line pitch describes the film as the story of "a man and woman drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism", but that barely scratches the surface of this dense, mesmerising and meticulously crafted work. Upstream Colour is a film that's precisely the opposite of the phrase "check your brain at the door" - switch off for a second during its 96-minute running time and you'll be hopelessly lost.

Amy Seimetz takes centre stage as Kris, a visual effects artist who's drugged and force-fed a live parasite by a character dubbed the Thief (Thiago Martins). The worm puts her under the complete control of the Thief, who forces her to transcribe the entirety of Walden and eventually drains her bank account. Jobless and penniless, Kris encounters a farmer (Andrew Sensenig's Sampler) who removes the worm and transfers it over to a pig. The icky surgery leaves Kris and the pig with a psychic bond and draws her close to a similarly-damaged stranger, Jeff (Carruth).

Upstream Color poster
Upstream Colour


Upstream Colour will need multiple viewings and perspectives to unravel (hence why this is Digital Spy third review of 2013!). Carruth has made a film that's immediately challenging to its audience - sequences cut back and forth in time without an obvious transition, sound from one scene overlaps with another and images are repeated or cleverly juxtaposed to hint at meaning. There are further similarities between Carruth and Malick, besides the long stretch away from directing. You'll see shades of The Tree of Life's birth of the universe sequence in his breathtaking mico-photography of chemical reactions, and the cycle of natural world is clearly integral to Upstream.

At times it's like watching one extended head-spinning montage, but in Seimetz the film has an emotional heartbeat that draws you in. She barely speaks for the opening 30 minutes, yet it's as compelling a performance you will see all year. Even with it's intricately layered design, haunting Brian Eno-esque score and head-scratching plot this is still a very human story about connection and the search for identity in the modern world.

Amy Seimetz in 'Upstream Color'


What is Upstream Colour really about, though? Carruth has discussed the idea of stripping away identity but the overriding themes seem to be breaking cycles and attaining personal freedom. Here's a wild thought, and light SPOILERS ahead if you haven't yet seen the film. Swipe -->Has Carruth made a movie about slaying religion? The Sampler plays God, ruling the lives of those bonded to pigs, while the Thief - a fundamentalist? - abuses and twists the original intent for personal gain. Is Walden his stand-in for a religious text?<-- Swipe

Whatever Carruth's intentions one thing is certain: you won't see a film quite like Upstream Colour this year. In the best possible way it'll get under your skin like the parasitic worms dispensed by the Thief. On the evidence of this and Primer, Shane Carruth is the real deal.

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