To make a list of things I do not understand about Shane Carruth's Upstream Color would be to simply list everything that happens in the movie. But lemme try out some questions on you anyway: Who is the man who kidnaps a woman and drugs her by feeding her a worm? And why does that worm cause her to obey his every command? Why is she saved by a man who transfuses her blood with a pig's? Why is there a pig farm? Are the worms and pigs related somehow? Is this real life?
That paragraph didn't make any more sense to me than it did to you, and I'm only asking the surface questions about Upstream Color; trust me, the movie has far more profound questions on its mind than ones about pigs and worms. The thing about the movie, though, is that even though I don't know any of the answers to any of the questions, I'm pretty sure the answers are in the film, if I just look hard enough.
The same could be said of like Carruth's previous film, Primer. In a fantastic profile of Carruth by Brian Raftery in Wired, Looper director Rian Johnson tries to put his finger on it. “From a first viewing of Primer, you’re inevitably confused, but you know that it makes sense. It’s that kind of dangerous fishing hook that can draw in a conspiracy theorist—the tantalizing notion that if you can put all the pieces together, this will add up to something.” The answers are all there. You just have to find them.
If you've seen Primer–and/or if you're aware of the cult obsessed with solving its mysteries–you'll have an idea of what you're in for with Upstream Color, but what's most impressive about the film is how much more of a film it is. Primer was determinedly low-fi, obsessed more with detail and construction than with anything cinematic. But Upstream Color is gorgeous, lyrical and hypnotic and mesmerizing; the upgrade in Carruth's ability is staggering. (The Wired piece talks about how obsessive Carruth is about solving problems. It's possible he just figured out cinema the same way your or I would figure out how to put together an Ikea shelf.)
It also–and this is the big surprise–has a huge, romantic heart. The movie (I think) is a love story, about two damaged people (Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself) who find each other and fix each other. Now, it's possible that they are damaged because of a deranged con man who poisons people with worms and works with a pig farmer who transports their souls into baby swine, but that doesn't make their love story any less affecting. (Again: I'm not sure all that happens. I'm just guessing.) The movie is warmer and more welcoming than Primer; Carruth wants you to feel in a way he didn't in that film, even while he's still manufacturing his intricate puzzles. There is a theme of redemption, of pain eased through love, through human connection, that shines through even as you're baffled by what's going on. This is, more than anything else, a romance, and a deeply moving one.
I've only seen the movie once, so I can't even pretend to make heads or tails of it. Carruth is releasing the movie himself, and it'll be available for download on May 7 after hitting theaters this Friday. I highly recommend the purchase. There were countless times during my screening when I wanted to pause the film and go back a couple seconds, like I just missed something important that I'll need to know for later. This is the genius of Carruth: You are constantly being fed bits of information that don't make sense but that feel like they do, and you find yourself certain you can pull them together if you just have the time. His films are confounding, but pleasingly so; he's not being arch and obnoxious about his riddles as much as he's letting you in on the trick–slowly, almost mathematically.
And the major difference here, as opposed to Primer, is that the experience of watching the trick is so sweeping and grand that you don't even care that you don't understand it. (Carruth has warmed as a performer, but Seimetz is a revelation; without her ability to instantly win your affection, it'd be tougher to go along with her journey.) But you will care that someday you will. I know the answer is in there, somewhere. I can't wait to watch it again, and again, and again, to figure it out. (Or at least try for a while and finally go online and see what everyone else has come up with.) Upstream Color will leave you giddily befuddled. I've never been so swept away by being so lost.