This week in movies you missed: The director of cult flick Primer returns with an expressionist epic about the bond between human and ... swine?
What You Missed
OK, that's not exactly what Upstream Color is about. It's a tough movie to summarize, though.
Amy Seimetz plays Kris, a professional who is abducted and fed a worm that places her in a suggestible hypnotic state. Her abductor cements his control by instructing her to do odd repetitive tasks, then makes her sign over the equity in her house.
Things get worse from there. Kris ends up in the care of a sound artist/avant-garde composer/pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who performs a procedure that gives her back control of her mind and body, but leaves her with a big hole in her memory.
As she rebuilds her life, Kris meets a young man (writer-director Shane Carruth) who appears to have had a similar experience. They become involved while trying to figure out what the hell happened. The audience joins them in this endeavor.
Why You Missed It
Upstream Color caused a stir at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where Carruth announced he was distributing it himself rather than seeking a buyer. It played 43 theaters before proceeding quickly to DVD, and is now available on Netflix Instant and other VOD/streaming platforms.
Should You Keep Missing It?
Where to start? Upstream Color has already been overanalyzed as much as any movie in the past five years. Three basic camps of opinion have formed:
1. Screw this hipster bullshit. The whole thing looks like a freakin' Instagram.
2. It's totally awesome and will blow your mind; don't even try to understand it.
3. It's not actually that hard to understand, but who-did-what-why is less important than the visual beauty and emotional resonance.
I'm in the third camp.
I'm not a huge fan of oblique, minimalist art films that withhold huge scads of information from the audience (Meek's Cutoff, looking at you). But when I sense the presence of internal coherence (however twisted or fanciful) and an emotional core, I can be on board for a lot of weirdness (thinking of Holy Motors or Mulholland Drive).
I was bewildered by Primer on first (so far only) viewing, but I was entranced by Upstream Color. It's a disjointed, not-always-linear film that still manages to have its own trance-like flow, because Carruth's editing uses visual and aural associations to connect everything to everything else. (Not for nothing is the river a major motif.)
Yet it's not a random-feeling stream-of-consciousness narrative or collage: If you accept the absurd premise about the worms and how they affect people (and animals), it does make sense. Seimetz's strong performance, with a vein of anger running beneath her vulnerability and confusion, anchors the film in relatable emotions. Her relationship with Carruth's character is graspable in regular old relationship terms.
Much as I liked the movie, I still wasn't sure exactly what Carruth was getting at with the worms and the pigs and the rest of it. Turns out, he'd be happy to tell you in this A.V. Club interview:
I kept coming up with the same sort of questions of how identity comes to be ... I would have a conversation with somebody, and it felt like I wasn’t talking necessarily to a person; I was talking to a list of talking points that they were set up with. The more I thought about that, the more I thought what a really heartbreaking concept that is. ... That led to the idea that I’m going to take some characters and break them down and bring them low, and I’m going to erase what they thought they knew about themselves and have them build it back up.
Which is fascinating. I didn't get that theme from the film itself, perhaps because we barely know the characters before they are "broken down and brought low." Maybe that means Carruth didn't achieve his aim, yet, the more I think about what he says he's doing, the more sense it makes. There's nothing like a telepathic bond with a pig to make you wonder if your human sense of self is an illusion.
Here's Slate's handy FAQ that explains every enigmatic aspect of Upstream Color (except the title, though they try) with help from stuff Carruth said in interviews.
It could be worse. This time last year, they were all arguing about Prometheus!
Verdict: If you like David Lynch and/or Terrence Malick, give it a try. If you despise them and other filmmakers who use striking visuals and sound design to force you to make huge intuitive leaps, UC may not be for you.
In Theaters This Week
Brad Pitt vs. zombies in World War Z, an experiment to find out if PG-13 zombie attacks are, well, interesting. Pixar brings out a sequel to Monsters, Inc., so expect families to flood the multiplexes.
On the indie side, the Savoy Theater has Sarah Polley's documentary about her family, Stories We Tell, and sea adventure Kon-Tiki hits Merrill's Roxy.
On Video This Week
You may have seen the freaky trailer for this movie at the Majestic, but it never got here: Stoker. Also, a bunch of crappy spring flops and Quartet, which some audiences seem to have liked, though our critic most definitely did not.