Joshua Reviews Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color [SXSW 2013 Review]


Now almost a decade after the debut of Shane Carruth’s first feature film, Primer, the enigmatic filmmaker is back from his Terrence Malick-esque break with as dense and obtuse a film as his beloved time travel masterpiece. And one just as aggressively thought provoking.

Entitled Upstream Color, the film is Carruth’s second feature film, but it wouldn’t seem that way given both his directorial assurance and the fan worship that his work brings along with it, almost from day one.

Both incongruous and his most straight forward work, the film is as confounding as it is lush and vital. The film’s plot surrounds Kris, a woman who after having her life flipped upside down following being drugged and robbed by a nameless thief, meets a man and falls in love. Both stuck in the endless cycle of a mysterious presence that predates any living thing, the pair look to build lives together, while also being unable to truly control their lives.

Following a much anticipated debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Carruth’s latest marched its way to Austin for SXSW, and with a true release date looming, it’s only a short time until everyone can see just how breathtaking this film truly is.

Written, directed, edited, produced, scored and starring Shane Carruth, this film may be the definitive auteur picture. Carruth is disturbingly assured in his imagery and framing, and the narrative seems thrillingly personal and unlike anything we’ve ever seen. A Terrence Malick-style meditation on love, life and ultimately free will, the picture is inherently dense, but it’s also full of life and vitality. Easily the most touching and affecting film of Carruth’s two pieces, Upstream Color stands as one of the great sci-fi films of this generation, as well as one of its true and great relationship dramas.

Layered in every single way, Carruth proves himself one of today’s great filmmakers with this picture. Also shooting the film, the cinematography is gorgeous, a crisp and vital visual landscape for his existential narrative to play on. With tableau popping off the screen, Upstream Color’s story of a man and a woman controlled by things that they have no comprehension of becomes a work of art, a meditation on human free will.

Performance wise, the film is startlingly mystifying.  Carruth and co-star Amy Seimetz are fantastic here, with the chemistry between the two being incredibly asymmetrical, and yet entirely full of truth and life. More a tone poem than a piece of acting, the pair give performances similar in style and breadth of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in the oft-compared Tree Of Life, in that they are real flesh and bone, but feel structurally more like stand-ins for things far greater than themselves.

This film is going to confound and possibly anger a very large number of people. Maze like in its themes and surreal in its narrative and performances, the film is anchored by the singular vision of its true creator, Shane Carruth. A man set in his style and his ideas so much so that he refuses to truly collaborate, the multi-hyphenate proves with this film to be today’s most interesting auteur. A film that will unpack for many on multiple viewings, this is an existential romance drama that touches on everything from love to loss, free will to human nature, in the body of a piece of art unlike anything we’ve ever seen.  With inspirations seemingly ranging from David Cronenberg to Henry David Thoreau, Upstream Color is a beautiful and frustratingly dense piece of art that is as confrontational and perplexing as it is utterly breathtaking. It may be the most singularly distilled film from one filmmaker ever committed to screen, and if there is a better film that 2013 has to offer, we’ll be seeing the first “perfect” film ever made.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.