‘Upstream Color’ a bizarre, hypnotic thriller

Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in “Upstream Color,’’ which Carruth also directed.
Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in “Upstream Color,’’ which Carruth also directed. –Photos by erbp

Henry David Thoreau plays an enigmatic role in Shane Carruth’s hypnotic thriller — an oxymoronic term to describe a film that is truly sui generis. The reclusive, 19th-century Transcendentalist’s “Walden’’ provides a key link in a circular conspiracy that extends from a pig farm to the frontiers of consciousness. Is this Philip K. Dick-like plot benevolent or malignant or none of the above? Figuring that out is just one of the film’s sanity-stretching pleasures. More lyrical than Carruth’s stunning debut feature, “Primer,’’ it seems at various times like the work of a more spiritual David Cronenberg or a more malign Terrence Malick. Above all it is seductive; and while I feel compelled to see it again, I don’t have high hopes that it will make any more sense.


That’s more or less the state of mind the film’s protagonists find themselves in. The first, Kris (Amy Seimetz), gets tasered and kidnapped by some creep who forces her to swallow what looks like a mescal worm. As seen in the film’s elliptical, nearly wordless opening sequence, this worm infests the roots of a blighted orchid — reminiscent of the source of the drug Death in “A Scanner Darkly.’’ The worms are processed into a liquid that two teenage test subjects drink, after which they display unnaturally synchronized behavior in a series of exercises.

But for Kris the effect is more drastic; she regresses to a robotic state, sleepily following her keeper’s commands, signing over all her assets to him. That accomplished, she goes into a kind of withdrawal, and when the now-engorged worm starts visibly crawling beneath her skin, she tries to remove it with a butcher knife. Finally, after a procedure that merges her identity with that of a pig, she’s released, without memory and with her life in ruins. The pig, meanwhile, joins dozens of others in a pen, where they root about contentedly, like the sailors in the “Odyssey’’ metamorphosed by Circe.


Maybe William Burroughs could explain what’s going on — and this only 25 minutes into the film. Things settle down a bit when protagonist number two, Jeff (Carruth), arrives on the scene. He apparently has been similarly victimized; and as if to demonstrate that love is stronger than mind-melding worms, Kris and Jeff fall in love and team up to find out what the heck is going on.

Or is love just part of the process? And what about the weird guy tending the pigsty — why does he record odd sounds and distort them and then sell them as CDs? And why are all the zombified victims reading or reciting passages from Thoreau; isn’t he the hero of nonconformism? Entranced by the disorienting editing, the oblique narrative, and the lulling soundtrack, I found that despite such questions, it all seems to make sense. It’s when the film is over that the real questioning begins.

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