On The Edge Films

Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds

Upstream Color

2013/ USA

Director: Shane Carruth

Starring: Shane Carruth, Amy SeimetzAndrew SensenigThiago Martins

To begin to try and analyse this film is almost like trying to piece together a dream the minute that you wake up. The more you ponder the details and what you experienced the more the details themselves slip away and fade into obscurity. It has to be said that ‘Upstream Color‘ is a “thinker” and a big one at that.

Director, producer, writer, distributor, actor and composer Shane Carruth (yes he fulfills all these roles on every film he makes) has returned from a near decade in artistic hiatus. His breakthrough movie ‘Primer‘, a dark warning about the consequences of time travel and duplication, garnered him the attention of everyone in Hollywood it seems. Yet as brilliant as Carruth is he is also comitted to his work ethic. After Primer’s success Carruth set about directing his follow up, a film entitled ‘A Topiary’. However his unflinching will to control every element within his cinematic creations meant that even the likes of David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh coulnd’t get the film released or even funded for that matter. In Carruth’s own words “just because someone has a cheque book doesn’t mean they have right to say what happens to the story”.

Upstream Color is Carruth’s salute to the unconventional, the surreal and and fantastical. I wouldn’t attempt to even summarise the plot for you here because it could take 14 pages to fully detail what happens on screen. But that really is the point of the film as well. I also wouldn’t want to quantify what “actually” happens on screen because each person’s individual reading of the plot will throw up different ideals and beliefs. I’ll quote the IMDB summary and hopefully that alone will spark your interest enough to pursue the deeper meanings in the film for yourself.

“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives”

To mercilessly plough through the story isn’t the point intended of the film. Yes there is a story in there but Carruth leaves out every key element you would normally expect in a narrative to subvert accepted plot ideals. Things like back story, character introduction and sometimes even specific meaning are omitted. The film’s name is the selling point, particularly if you focus on the UPSTREAM. For at times it can feel like an Upstream battle against the plot as you try and figure out in your head what is happening on screen. This is what you would normally do, especially in a complicated narrative but you have to let the plot wash over you and just embrace what you are watching.

You can see I’m struggling to make a coherent point about this film but it, in itself, lacks a coherent point. There is a narrative in there but what Carruth decided to do was omit any kind of telling detail so that his meaning is obscured from us.


At times the realist way in which the film is shot and acted can distract you from the fact that Carruth is working in the realms of science- fiction. However, it’s science- fiction that fits well within his constructed world. The world of Primer doesn’t suddenly shift with the introduction of time travel it doesn’t go all “Bill and Ted” and conform to stereotype. What Carruth did with that film was set an abstract concept in the real world… even Christopher Nolan could learn a thing or two about this from Carruth.

Upstream Color follows suit, the opening sequence follows Kris (Seimetz) in a rather mundane correlation of scenes. We are induced in the mundane and then the film shifts all but entirely into the surreal as she is kidnapped by The Thief (Martins). But it’s believable to see, nothing is that fictitious that we question its presence in the narrative.

Exquisite is a word you often use to describe maybe a painting or a sculpture but I have to admit that as a visual spectacle Upstream Color fits the term perfectly. Carruth’s use of the signifier colour blue throughout is deployed in so many different ways that when his main characters begin to wear different colours you actually rub your eyes to make sure they are still working properly. The soundtrack as well is eerie and daunting throughout, lead track ‘As If It Would Have a Universal and Memorable Ending’ spills Carruths ambitions merely in its title. The song dominates what we can call the film’s ending and threatens to build to a raucous crescendo where in fact it sort of fizzles out much like the story does. I’d certainly say the ending was memorable, it’s etched in my memory still at this very moment. But universal it is not, the ending like the entirety of the film is left wide open for interpretation it is not conclusive nor even satisfying. Yet it’s not paving way for a *shudders* sequel it is leaving you with a choice and posing you a question… what does this all mean?

I read recently that Upstream Color is much like Terrence Malick‘s ‘The Tree of Life‘ but condensed down to a shorter run time of around 90 minutes. I have to conclusively say that interpretation is incorrect. The Tree of Life was a basic plot stretched way over budget and across far too many minutes. Whereas Upstream Color is a highly intricate and complex film crammed into a short run time. You have no time to think in Upstream Color, the more time you spend pondering a particular scene the more you will miss in the next. It’s not the kind of film anyone will be happy in watching just the one time. Anyone who professes to understand it from a cursory first watch is lying basically.

Overall Upstream Color is probably one of the highlights of my cinema watching life so far. I know why I like it and I know why it’s good but it could take me years to figure out everything Shane Carruth was trying to say with it. You could spend a hundred years watching it and still never crack the code of the three staged life cycle it represents. All that I know is that it is an intimate look into the mind of a supremely talented individual. A man who now will surely be at the top of every production companies list to direct their next big film. I just hope Shane Carruth doesn’t go back on the last decade of work, he has done more across two very short films than most directors ever do in their whole lives. Apologies if I failed to satisfy your need for a resolution to this review. Upstream Color took mine so I’m taking yours.


-Josh Senior


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