Upstream Colour (2013)- what just happened?!

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June 12, 2015 by heligena



So sometimes you come across a movie that just blows your mind into tiny pieces.
The latest one for us? (although we are a little late to the party, we know this) Upstream Colour by Shane Carruth- writer and director of the amazing indie flick Primer back in 2004. Possibly better described as an impressionistic painting rather than a film, it’s a patchwork story made up of close-up shots and subtle silent reflections. And boy does it take some time to unravel after the end credits have gone up.

Anyways, after much contemplation, here come our thoughts on what actually happened in this Rubik’s cube of a movie. We may be completely wrong, hell even we’re not sure. So agree or disagree- please let us know because we’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this.

Ok. So a man known only as the Thief (and interestingly, the lack of names is a great writing choice as it adds to the mystery of the piece) discovers a parasite buried in amongst a particular flower that’s been feeding on the plant’s bluish minerals. Somehow he’s discovered that if you distil the parasite in liquid, anyone who drinks the resulting liquor can mirror the thoughts and emotions of another who has had some of the same brew. We never find out how he discovered this of course (prequel possibilities anyone?) but we do get to see him testing it on a group of local children who seem to be able to copy each other movement for movement. Compelling, right?

upstream-color-4This isn’t enough for the Thief though. He wants to take the experiment further. After failing to sell the parasite as a drug in the back alleys he ends up tazoring a poor unsuspecting woman and forces her to swallow the worm. And the result of this horrific semi-rapesque act? A kind of brainwashing occurs where the woman finds herself compelled to follow all the demands this man makes- including drinking water as if it were the only thing needed to nourish her, writing out page after page of Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist treatise ‘Walden’ (and there’s a whole dissertation to be written on the relevance of that text, yes sir) and signing away all her money and assets to him.
So far, so creepy, right?

Once he’s taken her money though, he leaves (such a gentleman.) And the parasite continues to grow; throughout her body like a tapeworm until alone and scared she tries to cut the thing out with a knife just to be rid of it. There’s a lot of controversy on the imdb message boards as to how she knows to seek out the man known only as The Sampler to have the thing surgically removed from her body. Our take on it is that he is connected to the victims (whether he was once a victim himself is another interesting question) and he uses his abilities to communicate through sound to draw her to his farm in the same way he can call the worms up out of the soil. Anyways, he removes the worm from her in a pretty awful scene to watch (not for the squeamish) and transfuses her blood into one of the pigs on his farm. Because, well. Why not.upstream-color3

And Kris bravely returns home; memory free but safe from harm? The end. Screen fades to black.
Um well no. This is where shit gets even weirder. As Kris goes back to her wreck of a life (no money/unexplained absences from work remember although we never saw much of her pre-abduction as a comparison) she sleepwalks through the days until she meets Jeff; a stranger on a train whose dazed conversations somehow draw her to him though there’s no logical reason why they should.
Except for the fact that…though he doesn’t know it, he has been through the same experience she’s had, ending up with a shell of a professional life where he believes he stole money from the trading firm he worked for but in fact in all likelihood The Thief instigated the whole thing while he was under mind control. The pair of them start spending time together with no knowledge of their shared past- fascinating, right? Well, the even more compelling part about this burgeoning relationship is that the male and female pig that have these two people’s blood running in their veins have already inexplicably become attracted to one another. Fallen in love or as close to it as is possible for pigs, you might say. And so Kris and Jeff do the same, completely oblivious as to why. Unsure as to what their connection really is. And as they stumble through a new piecemeal life together, they start responding emotionally to the things that their porcine counterparts are going through. Separations from each other that cause them to freak out at work and lose all sense of decorum. Losing their young when the Sampler drags their piglets away leaving Kris and Jeff feeling attacked and paranoid though neither of them have no idea why.


Eventually after trying to sift through their strange diaphanous memories, neither character able to work out whose is whose and why they seem to be interconnected (and look out for a fabulous scene involving starlings, eagle-eyed viewers!), the pair of them simply give up on normal day to day lives and start to seek out a place and its sounds that seems to be calling them there.

And so after much searching, with no map to aid them they find The Sampler’s farm. And not just his farm but his files- detailing exactly how many people have fallen prey to the experiment (big clue: it’s a lot.) After releasing herself from her never-ending sense of confusion and killing the Sampler (although this scene does have a dream like quality to it and could be seen as fantasy if you’re so inclined), the intrepid pair finally send all the victims details of their assault through the mail and invite them to the farm where they can set up a new commune alongside them taking care of the pigs they’ll never be able to detach themselves from. Living a simple life in harmony with the other part of themselves rather than lurching through a supposedly ‘normal’ life half-lived.Upstream-Colour2

Meanwhile the Thief continues on his search for the next parasite….the next discovery.
Roll credits.

And deep breath out. Phew.

That then seems to be the plot of the movie as far as we can gather.
But underneath that it’s a lot more too if you take the time to think things through. The film truly is macroscopic look at life cycles- both human and insect. Body horror with a side of philosophy. Not only that, it’s also a series of questions asked through the medium of image- eg. what is identity really? How much say do we get in it? Are we ever not in the thrall of something that’s biologically hacking us? Are our relationships really based on free will as much as we’d like to think? And collective memory; is it so far fetched?

Now you’ve probably worked out by now that we love movies that make you think. And this is an absolute gem for those with an open mind. Seriously, it’s a doozy.

Which is not to say we couldn’t use some help with the questions leftover from this beautifully shot, meticulous edited movie. If anyone could tell us:
1) Whether the Thief knew the Sampler and were they in it together? (we believe so but there is no evidence to prove it one way or the other)
2) Or if Kris hadn’t proven so resourceful would the cycle just have gone on and on endlessly with a sea of blank, dazed people living out their lives in the city?
3) Hell, which came first the pig, the orchid or the worm?!

…we’d be ever so grateful!
All things considered though, in conclusion the movie gets a big thumbs up from us for being brave enough to disregard the mainstream and appeal to a different kind of viewer. Mr Carruth, you have our support. Keep on doing what you do, sir.

We applaud you.


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