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Few people saw writer-director Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut, Primer. The time-travel, physics-heavy thriller didn’t even reach $425,000 at the box office, but because it was made with a budget of $7,000, it counts as a success. Storytelling-wise, it’s a winner, too: Yes, it leaves you a bit baffled as you try to shove together puzzle pieces that, upon closer inspection, may not necessarily fit—very Memento-like. But with all its science and calculations, it also made you feel like a brainiac-by-proxy, its narrative written with just enough everyman sense to allow you to get the gist. Instead of being alienated, you wanted to learn more.
Carruth’s second effort, Upstream Color, is light years away from pulling off this trick, though surely there will be of-course-I-get-it viewers who impose upon it meanings that aren’t necessarily there. Even its studio-supplied description is a head-scratcher, saying its main characters are “entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.” When a film out-abstracts The Tree of Life, there’s a problem.
Yet its randomness does hold your attention, even as you’re thinking WTF? The story—a term that here must be defined loosely—begins with a character known as Thief (Thiago Martins) buying plants that contain worms, which he then peddles as a mysterious, trip-your-ass-off drug. When he encounters put-together businesswoman Kris (Amy Seimetz) at a club, Thief kidnaps her and feeds her the worm. It becomes clear that Thief now controls Kris, who sees a glare when Thief says his face is made from the same material as the sun and believes that water is the best-tasting beverage on the planet, a sweet substance for which she’ll do anything, including copying long passages from Walden.
Kris also believes Thief when he says he’s received a phone call that her mother’s been kidnapped, coercing her into giving him all her money. When the drug’s effects wear off, Kris stabs herself trying to force out the worms crawling under her skin. A pig farmer called the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) helps get them out and then puts the worms in his pigs. Kris wakes up in a car on a grassy median, loses her job, and cuts her hair short, from now on living in a daze. Somehow she manages to start dating Jeff (Carruth), a guy she meets on a train. But when he says, “I like you so much,” you have no clue why, because Kris is nothing but solemn and borderline mute.
There’s very little dialogue in the film, and the action from one bizarre scene to the next doesn’t seem connected to anything. The Sampler goes around recording outdoor sounds, following and staring at people, but it’s suggested that he’s not real. Kris spends time in an indoor pool, collecting rocks that for some reason are at its bottom. She and Jeff at one point get paranoid about some mystery danger and hide in their bathtub, and they often argue about whose memory is whose. The latter seems the clearest hint about the film’s meaning—something about identity?—but it’s far from a standout theme. The Sampler’s pigs are often shown, too, and are included in the final scene, along with other people who have been drugged. Together, they take care of the pigs, saving them from the seemingly evil Sampler. For Carruth’s next film, perhaps a screenwriting partner can help save him from himself.