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Upstream Color

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/25/13 22:10:36

"Worth seeing without knowing much about it."
5 stars (Awesome)

For all that the interconnectedness of today's world is wonderful in many ways, it can make it harder for something to truly take one by surprise - there's non-stop casting news, coverage, previews, and analysis of its commercial and artistic outlook to the point where a person can feel sick of a movie weeks before it opens in theaters. And yet, the same tools that enable that also mean that somebody with the talent to take on multiple jobs can make something that's kind of amazing even if it does take few enough resources that it barely shows up on the radar, meaning it's possible to go in not knowing what to expect. That's the case with "Upstream Color", Shane Carruth's first film since "Primer", his equally-but-differently-peculiar debut almost a decade ago.

Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a mess, working a job well below what she was once capable of and feeling angry and confused much of the time. Jeff (Carruth) falls for her anyway, feeling a strange connection beyond the usual; though outwardly more in-sync with the world around him, he's got issues of his own. As they pull together, they may eventually discover just what was going on with Kris during the first half-hour of the movie.

It's admittedly kind of unusual to skip over the beginning of a movie when giving the audience a taste of what it's about, but Upstream Color is an unusual movie in that it pushes its more fantastical elements early before coming to rest in a more conventional situation. The viewer gets a double-sized serving of disorientation, with much of the first act being the sort of strangeness that other films would plunge into only after establishing a familiar world and a main character to identify with. This makes for a weirdly inverted sort of movie, where the old "everything you know is wrong" trope less a chance to prove doubters wrong than a wound that it may not be possible to heal from.

That's a heck of a burden to place on an actress, but Amy Seimetz is more than up to it. The audience gets little more than moments to form an idea of what the baseline Kris is like before the movie starts putting her through the wringer. As the story unfolds, its main character shifts and reshapes on an almost constant basis, expressing herself in unusual ways, and Seimetz not only makes this instability seem like part of her rather than an excuse to have the character behave arbitrarily, but she handles what must have been odd descriptions of Kris's motivation without trouble. Carruth is good as well; Jeff is not nearly so damaged as Kris, and is even cheerful at first (it's kind of cute how he chases after her), but as the film goes no, Carruth brings out his own issues quite nicely.

The two most noteworthy supporting performances, from Andrew Sensenig and Thiago Martins are nice, even if they by design don't reveal a lot about their characters. Attentive viewers will learn enough, though, even without any exposition; Carruth does an excellent job of showing the audience just enough to make connections, reinforcing it as necessary without saying "hey, this bit is about to become important" too loudly, and leaving out just enough for there to be some mystery - learning to live without all the answers is an important possibility (credit also to co-editor David Lowery). Some of the imagery used to convey all this is strange, but also kind of beautiful.

Maybe this is too much information; after all, one of the special joys of seeing "Upstream Color" right now (during its festival tour and initial release) is being able to discover it without reading a plot synopsis first. That's not a necessary condition; otherwise it wouldn't be worth seeing twice, and I actually look forward to seeing it again, if only to see how densely it's packed with things to discover and connect.

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