Thursday, December 12, 2013

Film Review: Upstream Color (2013)

An important question surrounding "Upstream Color" has become: Should the film be applauded just because Shane Carruth attempted it? Carruth did not only direct, write, and star in the film (his second picture, released a decade after his first), but he is also credited as producer, composer, and editor. Carruth's effort and determination is definitely ambitious. But the film itself is a gimcrack vanity trip.

The main character, Kris, experiences severe trauma, which involves her being kidnapped, drugged (the drug contains some metaphysical worm), and hypnotized. When she comes out of her stupor she is penniless and, unable to explain her absence, loses her job.

A man named The Sampler (a separate person from the kidnapper) lures Kris to his farm by using a low-frequency sound. He removes her worm and places it in a piglet. Kris is released, and later meets Jeff, who has been through a similar frightening ordeal.

The piglet carrying Kris' worm is somehow psychically connected to her. When that pig gives birth, The Sampler puts the piglets in a sack and drowns them. At the same time elsewhere, Kris is suddenly panicked (but doesn't know why) and begins searching frantically. Jeff is equally upset. Very scared, the two lock themselves in a bathroom, hiding in the bathtub with a gun and supplies.

Carruth says he chose not to have a relatable trauma happen to the two protagonists because he was worried that if it was too specific, people would believe the commentary was an indictment of whatever that thing was. For example, if the drug used in "Upstream" was a pharmaceutical drug (as opposed to the worm capsules), it could easily be perceived as a comment on pharmaceuticals. This is wrong.

Look at a film that does use a specific subject to communicate a universal message. "Brokeback Mountain" deals with a taboo relationship between two cowboys. But the film's themes extend beyond homosexuality, as is obvious to anyone who has viewed the film.

By trying to make "Upstream Color" more relatable, Carruth does the opposite, and alienates the viewer. How are real-life trauma survivors, or anyone else, supposed to empathize with the victims of pig mind control? And the dreamlike, abstract quality of the film further distances it from reality.

After thinking about it, the similarities between Kris' in-film trauma, and some victims of real-life trauma, became clearer: financial and personal ruin; being endlessly dazed, and frightened, and hopeless, just a general mess. But even when these connections become clear, they lack impact. By generalizing the trauma the film isolates itself; it would have done better to use one specific, tangible trauma. As it is, "Upstream" creates a muddled, imprecise portrait.

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