Dear Upstream Color,
There is a distinct difference between a complex idea and a complex story. A problem that is endemic in modern filmmaking is that a director or writer will take a simple idea and wrap it in a needlessly complex story as a substitute for deeper thought or interesting concepts. Similarly, a complex idea can be saddled inside of a fairly rote story, which saps the idea of its power to engender discussion and interest. A movie that makes things either too clear or too muddled snuffs out the embers of intellectual engagement before they have a chance to spark. Executed properly, however, a film that balances story and thesis can plant a seed that sprouts and grows almost endlessly in the mind of the audience.
Shane Carruth created such a film with his 2004 debut, Primer. There, the simple concept of time travel (moving backward or forward in time) was invested with narrative complexity befitting the realities of the action. Now, he has exceeded that previous work with you, Upstream Color, a deceptively simple story made more deep and more invigorating because of the heady, universal ideas that make up the heart of you.
You begin with scenes of enigmatic beauty and oddity. A man searches in the leaves and soil of orchids at a local greenery for various elements. Meanwhile, a group of children playfully examine the effects of the compounds for which that man was searching. Kris (Amy Seimetz), meanwhile, goes about her daily life without a care in the world, until the moment when everything she cares about is taken away from her.
Months later she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is drawn to her and slowly pulls her out of her shell. They are two broken individuals, struggling through daily lives that feel scarcely their own anymore. Yet in their frailty and in their growing connection they find a subtle strength that allows them to rebuild their lives and climb up from the depths of their loss.
And yet… and yet that is not all there is in this story. Another element of your plot, which I have purposefully left in obscurity, is working its power over them at all times. Without being aware of it, their actions are not fully their own, nor are their thoughts and memories. It is a subtle and nuanced, initially playful interpretation of what happens to all people under the influence of their partners, their parents, their upbringing in general. Yet, as things go on, the inconsequential nature of the outside force acting on them begins to shift into something else. It is not malevolent, because it is not purposefully cruel, but it is detrimental, and thus worth fighting against.
You are truly a movie that thrives off of the meticulous construction of your editing. It is easy to see how a film like this could have been done with the showiness and draggy exposition that many people might expect of such a thematically complex film. The mechanisms of the plot and the elements therein would have to be explained. The backstories of the characters would have to be fully divulged. Carruth, though, trims and intercuts and mixes moments and actions so precisely that it is possible from the outset to understand how things are happening without every truly grasping the larger picture as to why they should be happening. It is possible to predict the outcomes of certain initial actions, the reason for the effect, and yet the larger picture remains tantalizingly uncertain. It’s a miraculous, almost alchemical feat, and yet it is feels effortless.
In spite of this formal precision, or perhaps because of it, you are able to create a fully realized love story, a narrative of the ways in which people come to terms with their own senses of powerlessness and embrace the people in their lives who allow them to overcome it. Kris and Jeff both feel lost, lacking any defined understanding of their own actions, stripped of agency and lacking any kind of defense of their own selves. All they have is who they are, and that leaves them unmoored. And yet, in finding one another and caring for each other so deeply, they create a confluence of understanding that strengthens and empowers them.
Even as they slowly drift from one another, driven to madness by the emotions of some other entity being thrust upon them, some elemental part of them remains entwined, always giving them hope of a way out. So many romantic pairings in so many other films fall apart or become strained under circumstances much more banal and meaningless than those that afflict your protagonists. It is heartening and stirring, then, to watch them work together, feeling and loving one another as they do.
So what more is there to say? I feel as though I could spend hours defining what makes you brilliant, extolling what makes you so moving, and yet here I am already at a loss for words. You are a film that makes me think and feel beyond my ability to articulate. You are a film that demands a second viewing not as a way to clarify plot or themes left obscured, but so that one can luxuriate in so complete, uncompromising, and effective an artistic vision.
A complex film worth revisiting for pure joy alone; now that is a rare and valuable object indeed.
Love beyond words to express,
Brian J. Roan