Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” is a beautiful abstract work of art. It’s confounding but never frustrating and always fascinating. Part love story and part science fiction drama, the film is meant to baffle. It’s impossible to grasp all of what happens, and you’re not supposed to. In its purposely oblique style, it is both very much an experiment and an experience begging what I can draw as its biggest — out of many — philosophical questions: how are we all connected in a world of loss? In “Upstream Color,” reality gets realigned into a beguiling puzzle picture that puts faith in the audience to follow along and draw their own conclusions. Like the finest of paintings, there are infinite ways to begin looking at it.
There’s something about grub worms that have been biogenically engineered to infiltrate a person’s psyche and transport them to a hypnotic state once entered through the mouth. We follow one female test subject, Kris (Amy Seimetz), whose trance is detailed out in a series of quietly jarring sequences that lead to her trying to extract the worm from her body. Cut to a severe-looking ranch hand (Andrew Sensenig) who transplants the worm into the body of a pig. In one disturbing shot during the process, Kris and the pig are connected by one long umbilical cord.
Kris later meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who’s apparently gone through a similar situation. They find an understated, unique bond that morphs into a strange connection, something beyond their own quasi-romance where their own memories and pasts get muddled and run into each other. They’re both lost souls coping with a loss in their life and aren’t even aware they’re both dealing with something larger: a physical — and literal — emptiness inside them both. And back inside the corral, the pigs skitter about, the ranch hand the grandmaster of their souls. If this sounds weird, that’s because it is. But it’s also evocative and through stunning craft becomes enormously moving.
The film is sensually-directed and awash in texture, lush with vivid shots and sensory not only in sights but sounds as well. One of the themes is the repetition and recreation of specific sound effects that work as triggers to the test subjects, and listening to these interlaced throughout the world is one of the many great aesthetic pleasures. The conclusion brings little explanation (which may be troubling to some viewers), but the wealth of emotional significance it evokes is a true testament to its form. And in this, Carruth probably owes a lot of his technique to Terrence Malick, a master of mood. In the same vein, we may be witnessing the early stage of a new one-man voice in filmmaking, the vision of an artist of which this is a grandiose display.