Film & TV

Review – Upstream Color

Ten years after his feature debut, the mind-bending time-travel drama Primer, Shane Carruth comes back with a more sensuous, metaphysical ode to life and the fickleness of modern identity, a visceral and dream-like tale which will pursue and dazzle its audience far beyond its last images.

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To try to define, or even describe, what Upstream Color is, or what it is about might be as sinuous and flighty an experience as the movie itself. The story of Kris, a young woman who, one night, is taken hostage by a mysterious chemist and injected with a drug which renders her the puppet of her enigmatic abductor, Upstream Color explores how identity is structured around our (in)capacity to narrate our own stories. As her kidnapper progressively deprives her of her sense of self (as well as her money), Kris is left to re-create her life from the fragments of memories she has left, never entirely sure those are hers to begin with. With the help of Jeff, another victim, she attempts to make sense of what happened to her, as her own identity slowly morphs with that of her new lover and she becomes haunted by the shared affective perceptions of a pig.

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If this may seem a convoluted and strange (to say the least) story, it is nothing in comparison to how quickly one gets lost in Carruth’s latest movie. But loss, within Carruth’s cinema is an essential part of the experience. Like Primer, Upstream Color proposes less of an enigma, a cipher that the audience is left to decode, than a strangely visceral and sensual experience, one whose roots may be found just as much in Terrence Mallick’s philosophical cinema or in Kubrick’s and Lynch’s more metaphysical and obscure works.

Offering a narrative which not only challenges linearity but shifts between different parallel stories whose ties appear at first extremely tenuous if not non-existent, Carruth’s latest film draws the portrait of a couple in search of meaning, a meaning which lies not in the cerebral and intellectual engineering which characterised his first feature, but in a disconcerting sensuous connection with the other, be it human or animal.

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A post-modern tale of connectivity and fluidity, an exploration of identity in constant interaction with the wider and stranger world which surrounds us, Upstream Color is the product of Carruth’s convoluted mind. Both behind and in front of the camera, editor of the movie as well as composer of the gorgeously hypnotic soundtrack which accompany a sumptuous cinematography, Carruth offers its audience a beautifully strange foray into unknown territories, an almost hallucinatory trip into the complexities of a modern identity infused by drug-use and trans-species exchanges.

A brilliant second feature which will undoubtedly leave numerous audience members wondering what it is exactly that they just witnessed (some people in the audience laughed as the credits began to unroll.) Upstream Color confirms, for those who needed confirmation, the emergence of a new and truly unique voice in American cinema, and makes us hope that we will not have to wait another ten years before Carruth’s next opus.

Mathieu Donner

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