When Shane Carruth's debut feature, the sci-fi, time travel tale, Primer, was released back in October of 2004, audiences did not know just what to do with the film. Even though the film won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and was welcomed with mostly good reviews, the low budget aspect of the film, along with a twisting and turning time travel story that managed to confuse many a filmgoer, ended up being not the smash indie hit it deserved to be, but nothing more than a mere cult-like phenom. But isn't that good enough? I recall placing the film in my top ten that year, and giddily awaiting the engineer-turned-filmmaker's follow-up project. Well, cut to nearly nine years later, and that long-festering giddy anticipation has finally paid off. The director's Upstream Color is finally here, and not only is the critical praise even heavier this time around (almost universal acclaim from the arthouse critics to even the mainstream media), the questioning sideways glances from an even more confused audience is as high as it has been since Terrence Malick handed us The Tree of Life two years ago. But then, that is just how this critic likes it.
Now I am not here to defend any choices the director has made, nor to explain what those out of the avant-garde loop do not seem to fathom, no matter how hard they squeeze and strain their grey matter, but simply to let you, my faithful readers, in on just what I thought of this admittedly befuddling filmgoing experience. I have watched the film twice now, once on DVD and once on the big screen (the film received a semi-simultaneous theatrical, V.O.D. and DVD/BD release earlier this year) and must admit that some aspects of the story still make my head hurt. But, as I more-than-alluded to before, that is just how I like it. Basically, to give what I can of this story, the film is about, well...it is about something, isn't it? The official Sundance synopsis reads as thus: "Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives." This is as good a description as anyone is really going to get, barring any potential, though never truly revealing, spoilers.
Carruth moves his film along with the methodical pace of someone like the aforementioned Mr. Malick. Slowly but surely releasing bits and pieces of the plot, and letting his audience in on just what the fuck is going on (though never, thankfully, completely so), Carruth's ever-evolving, bewildering narrative, gives this very same audience an almost hallucinatory experience throughout. Again, that is just how this critic likes it. The film stars Amy Seimetz (AMC's The Killing) and Carruth himself (he serves as director, writer, producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer - whew!) as the hapless pair of intertwined loners, losing their individual identities and becoming lost in what may or may not be an existence of illusion. The acting, purposely so one must assume from how other aspects of the film play out, is as methodical as the storytelling, and these two lost souls seem as bewildered as those watching this intriguing, fascinating film. Sure, most audiences will just not get what is going on here - for they are too ensconced in the mainstream moviemaking world, where everything is choreographed and explained ad nauseam - but for those of us who do get it, even if we really don't "get" it, will be amazed at what Shane Carruth has given us. Now, hopefully we will not need spend another near decade wallowing in near-forgotten anticipation of what will come next.