Upstream Colour - DVD Review

'Carruth demonstrates for a second time how gifted he is at coming up with genuinely fresh and unique ways of tackling some of the most fundamental concepts within the genres in which he chooses to work'

If you claim to understand everything that’s going on in Upstream Colour on a first viewing then you’re either: a) Shane Carruth, or b) lying. Much like his debut feature, 2004’s Primer, Carruth’s latest is regularly obtuse and befuddling in its plotting, even whilst being captivating in other ways. Unlike Primer however, Carruth doesn’t manage to get away with it as well second time around.

Contained within Upstream Colour there’s undeniably one of the most fascinating and original stories you’re likely to have experienced for some time. Of course, no story is without its influences, and there are definite echoes of sci-fi and psychological horror that you will recognise here and there; but Carruth demonstrates for a second time how gifted he is at coming up with genuinely fresh and unique ways of tackling some of the most fundamental concepts within the genres in which he chooses to work.

The opening act of Upstream Colour will utterly captivate as you engage with the patchwork of images the director presents, before focusing upon Kris (Amy Seimetz) and the traumatic experience she suffers which drives much of the rest of the film. Carruth retains his focus whilst at the same time achieving an unsettling dreamlike quality which anyone who has seen Primer will instantly recognise.

Unfortunately it is from this point that Upstream Colour begins to come apart, with Carruth losing the focus he achieves in the first act and instead opting for an almost entirely art house style which makes significant stretches of his film almost impossible to comprehend. You’ll piece together that Kris has had to move on with her life and that she strikes up a relationship with Jeff (Carruth), but anything beyond that is likely to feel like putting a jigsaw puzzle together with your eyes closed after getting someone to spin you round on an office chair for several minutes. It’s fairly clear Carruth wants his film’s structure to reflect the fractured and muddled mental state of his characters, but too often his bizarre and alienating artistic choices get in the way of Upstream Colour being genuinely enjoyable.

The strong performances from Carruth and in particular Seimetz are regularly the main reason for staying with this often obstinately cabalistic film after the first act; even so, there are still many points at which Carruth as director stubbornly opts for pretension over performance. Several sequences that have characters wander around slowly and vacantly, resting their foreheads against whatever’s at hand in an oh-so-brooding manner, are likely to have you clamouring internally for everyone to just get on with it.

In execution if not in narrative, Upstream Colour feels like Carruth attempting to strike gold a second time with the same methods he employed in Primer. Just like in his first film, Carruth takes on an astounding array of roles from cinematographer to musical composer as well as writing, directing and acting, and in that sense Upstream Colour deserves to be recognised as a triumph of small-scale filmmaking. But it also feels as though Carruth may have had more success this time around had he let others take on some of the work, allowing him to focus on telling his brilliant story in the most effective way.

The comparisons between Carruth’s work and that of David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Darren Aronofsky feel appropriate; but if he is to fulfil the potential you feel he has to be considered as great as any of those three, Carruth needs to refine his filmmaking process much further, achieving greater balance between captivating storytelling, beautiful photography and mindbending art.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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