Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.
Running Time: 1hr. 36min.
MPAA Rating: NR
By Manohla Dargis
for The New York Times
Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color,” a deeply sincere, elliptical movie about being and nature, men and women, self and other, worms and pigs, opens with two scenes: Two teenage boys biking around a leafy suburb, and elsewhere, a man harvesting little white worms from orchid root balls. The teenagers slowly tracing circles on the pavement are so attractively framed by the soft, shimmery light and blurred background that they look as if they could have biked out of a Terrence Malick movie. The teenagers join the man, who does nasty things with worms and could be a concerned florist, an experimental entomologist, a budding serial killer or just a run-of-the-mill science-fiction freak.
Given that Mr. Carruth (“Primer”) doesn’t explain much, this botanist (Thiago Martins) can be all things, all monsters and metaphors, to all viewers. In terms of the story, he also is a worm-wrangler cum kidnapper, referred to only as Thief, who, right out of a David Lynch nightmare, snatches a blonde, Kris (Amy Seimetz), one dark, stormy night and pumps worms down her throat. He never explains his actions, even after he takes Kris back to her house, where a copy of “Walden” waits for someone to enjoy.
Seemingly doped, Kris becomes a hapless puppet for Thief, who murmurs sotto voce instructions (“take a drink”) as she writes him checks. By the time he splits, her money is gone and her sheets and body are a mess from her trying to hack out her strange, slithering invaders.
If you’re wondering what’s going on and why, sit tight, because for all of Mr. Carruth’s cosmic reaching and despite the jigsaw montage, “Upstream Color” isn’t an arduous head-scratcher if you don’t worry about what it means and just go with the trippy flow. (Mr. Carruth helped cut and shoot the movie, and wrote its mood-setting score.) It is, instead, a sometimes seductive, sometimes tiresome mélange of ideas that are by turns obvious, hermetic, touching and sweetly dopey. Much of it involves an emotionally fraught romance that Kris strikes up with Jeff (Mr. Carruth), a relationship that dovetails with a freaky tale of dead pigs, blue orchids, those mind-altering worms and another mystery man, Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), whose mailbox bears the words “Quinoa Valley.”
You may laugh, but if that’s an intentional joke, Mr. Carruth isn’t saying. He’s a man of few words and less exposition, and “Upstream Color” doesn’t come across as satirical even if it edges close to absurdity. Sampler is similarly taciturn and is mostly seen walking about recording sounds, like the papery rustle of dry leaves and the happy gurgle of streams. He also tends to his swine and conducts a shivery, creepy deworming procedure with Kris and a pig.
At times, he walks among people as undetected as the soulful angels in Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire.” In one scene, he drifts among his adorable herd of little porkers Christ-like, the fingers of one hand trailing through the air as the camera closely follows, a shot and a gesture that strongly evoke Mr. Malick’s work.
Mr. Malick’s imprint on Mr. Carruth, however deliberate, runs deep. It’s evident in Mr. Carruth’s emphasis on the natural world; his use of “Walden”; the hushed voices and many images, including some time-lapse photography of a dead pig decaying underwater, which registers as the catastrophic inverse of the time-lapse sequence of a seed sprouting underground in “Days of Heaven.” (Mr. Carruth’s movie at times feels like days of hell.) Mr. Malick’s influence also extends to shots of Kris and Jeff walking, whispering and touching that are not moored in a specific time but could be from the past, present or future. In these Malick Moments, time becomes as circular as the rising and setting of the sun. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden.”
Mr. Carruth also expresses this circularity through the editing, skipping through time to create narrative ellipses. He will, for instance, show Kris and Jeff doing one thing and then — as their conversation continues on the audio track — cut to images of them doing something else, someplace else, before looping back to that initial scene. These nominally atemporal lulls feel, much like Kris and Jeff’s fights about memory (each accuses the other of stealing his or hers), stirringly rooted in life, and they serve to anchor a movie that, with its natural and unnatural wounds, drifts on allegorical currents.
With its fragmentation and mysteries, “Upstream Color” offers itself up as a puzzle as well as a philosophical toy that you can spin and spin until the cafe closes and kicks you into the night.